Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity;
By Katherine Boo, @ 2012;
An audiobook read by Sunil Malhotra.

Abdul, 16 or 19, no one is sure not even him, has been accused of beating and burning a one-legged woman. The police are coming to get him, and he is hiding in a small shed next to his tin-roofed shack in the slum of Annawadi in Mumbai. Abdul’s father is going to take the fall since Abdul is the bread winner of the family, having started his own rather successful reclamation business of finding trash, sorting it, and selling whatever is salvageable to recyclers. The author, Katherine Boo, lets us know that Abdul is innocent, and in fact the one-legged lady actually set fire to herself.

This is nonfiction.

So comes alive the inner workings and politics of slum life in Mumbai. In Annawadi, over 3,000 people are swatting on airport-owned land, crammed into 335 huts bordering a lake of sewage. Abdul himself comes from a family of 11, and he is one of few Muslims who live in the predominantly Hindu slum. Luxury hotels surround them.

Within the first few sentences, Katherine Boo does a masterful job of setting the scene. She gives us the date (July 17, 2008), time (around midnight), place (Mumbai slum next to the international airport), people, action in progress, contrasts, and the current plan of action. Here is writing worthy of study. And incidentally, this is Katherine Boo’s first book.

It’s easy to be critical of a well-to-do Westerner writing and maybe profiting off the stories of poor people. But I find I don’t want to be critical of Katherine. She presents the social structure as well as the hopes, dreams, and challenges of the people she writes about. She turns “slum dwellers” into human beings. She examines how the set up of their lives shapes their aspirations and possibilities. This is the story of a community, not just of poverty. The people she writes about are smart, resilient, and strong.

According to Al Jazeera, 50 years from now 1 in 3 people worldwide will live in a slum.

That’s a shocking number, isn’t it?

I could relate to how the legal system treated Abdul and his family, except for me it is our medical system. Both systems deal with decisions about lives.

I’m not sure I’m walking away from the book with any grand conclusions. I feel it is an interesting and fair study of human nature that doesn’t seek to manipulate the reader, but instead accurately shows a glimpse of a way of life we might otherwise never see—important because it is a way of life for so many.

Is there any help for slum life? Any cure, any way to solve this? Any path of escape?

That’s a mighty big question. Remember, one third of the world’s population will soon be living in a slum. We don’t come away with a strong answer, rather a call for attention and further exploration.

Education is a good place to start. Compassion and education.

Eat, Pray, Love

One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia
By Elizabeth Gilbert
@2006, 12 hours, 49 minutes.
Audible version read by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Back in 2008 a coworker said, “You really gotta read this book!” She described it to me fairly accurately, and I didn’t think it would be for me. I didn’t want to read about some blond lady’s spiritual journey. I didn’t want to read about her travels across Italy, India, and Indonesia. Eating? I was on a diet!

So it’s fair to say it took me a little time to get around to this book, but it kept showing up here and there. People kept trying to give it to me. And I don’t really know what my problem was. It seemed, well, so “girly.”

The first book by Elizabeth Gilbert I “read” was her Audible version of Big Magic, and I probably would not have listened to that if it hadn’t been for her 2009 TED Talk on Creativity (which hit me like a ton of bricks) and yet another coworker sending me her podcast on Magic Lessons.

OK already, I’ll read your damn book!

Which wasn’t too bad. You know, I liked it. I like Liz’s openness to well, everything. Liz is engaging and interesting and sweet and supportive. You get the feeling that she’s the kind of person people seek out—all the time. Like she never has a free Saturday night. And this puts me off a little. It’s my issue, not hers.

She begins her book talking about how many people she’s going to offend by discussing her search for spirituality and healing, and I get that. I can easily think of people in my own life who would be terribly offended by this book. Liz looks for God on her own terms. She isn’t too sure about marriage or having children. She wants to claim space for her creativity, her own writing. She puts the breaks on her life and focuses completely on herself.

My mother-in-law would hate this book. In fact, she hates all books except for the Bible. If you’re reading a book that isn’t the Bible, there’s something wrong with you. If you can relate to my mother-in-law on the topic of books, Eat, Pray, Love may not be for you—-and, of course, you should definitely read it.

I’m not so easily offended. People can believe things radically different from what I believe, and it doesn’t upset me at all. I just think, hmm, that’s interesting. Wonder how they came to that conclusion? Liz does talk about one thing that I think, gee, why Liz? Why did you want to talk about that. TMI. TMI!

That said, Liz has a great reading voice. I think this book was probably better listened to than read.

So, yes. This was an interesting book. Liz’s problems are not my problems, though, so I wasn’t saying, oh yes, I really get you. Rather I marvel at this woman’s life. I marvel at her success and her freedom. I marvel at her ability to travel and her ability to pursue her dream because my dream has always seemed so hard to pursue. The small issue of money has always presented a barrier to me. I am only just conquering it, and even as I say this I’m not terribly sure that’s true. I mean “future me” probably is going to hate “past” and “present” me.

But Eat, Pray, Love. Should you read it? Yes, I think so. I think it is an important book of our time. I think it taps into women’s issues and gives a picture of the female condition that is very accurate for a large number of people. I think it’s historically and culturally significant.

Plus, Liz’s contemplation of meditation and yoga is very interesting. Yoga and meditation are becoming more important to me lately. My husband got some really bad news back from a test the other day. His ability to concentrate was judged to be under the 20th percentile with his working verbal memory measured just above the 1 percentile. So yes, I’m talking a range from 1 to 100. Does this mean dementia? We still do not know. But it does confirm brain damage. Well, duh. The 40 plus lesions on his MRI told us that. I mean really, what do we pay these doctors for?

But—I digress.

The point is this. Meditation could help my husband improve his cognitive function as long as he doesn’t have dementia. It can help with focus and concentration. Meditation is simple the practice of focusing your attention, of paying attention to what’s happening, right now. The act of bringing your mind back once it starts wandering is like lifting a weight and your ability to control your mind becomes stronger just as weight training makes your muscles stronger.

And as Liz discusses, there are all kinds of ways to do it because meditation has been explored by ancient cultures like India for a very long time. And by a long time, I mean for more than five thousand years. These cultures have the information, in other words.

Liz’s accounts of her heartaches rang true, but her account of her love story in Bali, while I get her excitement, seemed like she was holding back. So I think Liz nailed the “Eat” part of her story as well as the “Pray” part. But the “Love” part, I think she didn’t quite do it. I felt empathy. I felt relaxation. I felt her peacefulness. But I didn’t feel love. Love being a very complicated topic indeed.

Liz laments constantly: was Eat, Pray, Love her greatest work? Is her best work behind her?

Here’s my advice to her. Explore the concept of “love” and I mean this exploration to go beyond the Western one-word “love.” Explore love in Greek terms. Explore love in Middle Eastern terms.

As if I should be giving advice to Liz Gilbert! I should be giving advice to myself! Where’s my advice? Where’s my journey?

But alas, I have a gift for seeing what others must do, and Liz, your best work is not behind you. Best work does not equal most recognized work. Is your most recognized work behind you? Well, that’s anyone’s guess.

Grain Brain

The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar—Your Brain’s Silent Killers
By David Perlmutter, MD with Kristin Loberg
Little, Brown and Company
New York, Boston, London
@ 2013

If the assertions that Dr. Perlmutter makes in this book are true, then we have all been deceived—and at a very dangerous level. Grain Brain turns the world on its head when it comes to diet and nutrition.

And since we all have brains, this is a book for everyone. Even though neuroscience seems like a weighty subject to tackle, this book is so well written that I found all of the scientific discussions easy to consume and understand.

In a nutshell: Inflammation is at the bottom of just about all human illness. Anything that causes inflammation should be avoided as if your life depends on it, because it does.

Continuing along this line, fat is good for us and is especially good for our brains. Fat does not make us fat, quite the opposite. Saturated fat is good and good for the heart. The only bad fat is a trans-fat. We need these fats to absorb all kinds of brain-healthy and body-healthy vitamins. Cholesterol is also good, and necessary. Yes, eat the yolk of your egg!

You can probably see this coming…carbs are bad. Carbs make us hungry even when we shouldn’t be. They spike our blood sugar, make us insulin resistant, and screw up our biochemistry in all kinds of terrible ways. Not all calories are the same.

The best diet: high fat, low calorie. Say what?

You’ll have to read the book. I found it convincing.

Green veggies are good, very very good. Broccoli, cabbage, asparagus, celery, miscellaneous herbs, spinach, arugula, etc., etc.

And don’t forget to exercise; figure out how to sweat every day.

I remember when I was a kid. Whenever I was thirsty, no one gave me water. They gave me coke. I think from a young age, my body has been battling this deluge of carbs to where normal weight loss became impossible. I always had a sneaking suspicion that the math wasn’t on my side. I would count calories until I was obsessive-compulsive crazy and increase my exercise, but only Herculean efforts could take the weight off. Finally, my goal was to plateau. If I just didn’t gain any more, I could hang on. And the cravings never ceased.

After trying Dr. Perlmutter’s advice, I am not driven crazy by cravings. After normal meals, I am satisfied and go do something else. I don’t know if he’s right about everything, but from my own experience, he’s right, at least for me, about eliminating flour and sugar, completely.

I have an issue with the non vegetarian diet, mainly because of the cruelty of CAFOs. Dr. Perlmutter advises us to eat humanely treated, grass-fed animals. This diet can, however, be applied to a vegetarian diet with the addition of coconut oil and olive oil. If you aren’t a strict vegetarian, I think you’ll get better results because you’ll also add fish oil and eggs.

I’m not going to argue Dr. Perlmutter’s points for him, he does an excellent job in his book, and he provides a list of references at the end. As you might suspect, this book is about brain health, and as it turns out the worst thing you can do for your brain is get type II diabetes.

Gluten also comes up as a real villan here. Perlmutter refers to gluten as a silent germ that we are all sensitive to. Gluten does damage before we ever know it. And once we progress down that path to Alzheimer’s disease, there’s no certainty we’ll find our way back.

Getting rid of gluten can help us will all kinds of seemingly impossible afflictions from cancer to depression to MS.

Dr. Perlmutter is the only neurologist/nutritionist in the United States. This simple fact baffles and amazes me. Why?

Why don’t Western doctors understand that the body is a complex system and that everything is connected? It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that what you eat matters.

Grain Brain is a truly fascinating read.

 

 

 

Personal History

a photograph of a woman
a photograph Katharine Graham (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Katharine Graham; @ 1997; Vintage Books, a Division of Random House; 625 pages.

This is the story of Katharine Meyer Graham (1917–2001), the woman who led The Washington Post as its publisher for more than two decades. Personal History is her autobiograhy and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. It is also a history of The Washington Post, the newspaper that shaped the course of Katharine’s life.

Katharine writes in an incredibly straightforward, self-confident style. Reading her makes me think anything is possible with a little organization and planning.

Katharine begins by telling about her parents, who they were and how they met, and how her father acquired his vast fortune. Graham grew up fabulously rich, but she says she never knew she was rich. While her family owned vast assets, property, and huge houses, she and her siblings were not showered with lavish toys or clothes. They seemed to grow up without parents, as they were raised by governesses while their parents attended to business and social matters.

Katharine’s father, Eugene Meyer, was a very powerful man and during the Great Depression was appointed by President Hoover to be governor of the Federal Reserve Board. He guided the banking policies of the United States both domestically and abroad from 1930 to 1933. He was also the first president of the World Bank, serving for 6 months in 1946. (She never explains how he shielded or held onto his wealth during this time when the average American was losing everything. That would have been very interesting.)

In 1933 Meyer bought The Washington Post. He had attempted to buy The Post at an earlier time for $5 million and had failed, but during the Depression sale, he was able to anonymously bid and win The Post for $825,000. Knowing nothing about the newspaper business, Meyer stepped in and turned the failing paper around, transforming it into the prestigous paper it is today. A republican in political ideology, Eugene Meyer made it his goal to run an independent nonpartisan paper. To this end, he outlined and followed seven principles:

  1. That the first mission of a newspaper is to tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained.
  2. That the newspaper shall tell ALL the truth so far as it can learn it, concerning the important affairs of America and the world;
  3. That as a disseminator of news, the paper shall observe the decencies that are obligatory upon a private gentleman;
  4. That what it prints shall be fit reading for the young as well as for the old;
  5. That the newpaper’s duty it to its readers and to the public at large, and not to the private interests of its owner;
  6. That in the pursuit of truth, the newspaper shall be prepared to make sacrifice of its material fortunes, if such course be necessary for the public good;
  7. That the newspaper shall not be the ally of any special interest, but shall be fair and free and wholesome in its outlook on public affairs and public men.

What great principles/aspirations for a newspaper! (Though not completely followed by his son-in-law, we find out later.)

Just like the other books I’ve been reading and writing about, I am paying particular attention to what I can apply to my own writing. Katharine does a great job at reflection. After she shares an incident in her life, she tells us how she felt, why she thought things happened as they did, and what impact they had on her at the time or on her or others moving forward. Anyone struggling with this part of memoir writing should study this book.

I also noticed that the fact that Katharine was born wealthy diminishes my level of sympathy for her. And I think anyone who sets out to write a memoir should be aware of this factor. Maybe it is human nature to want our heros (protagonists) to have truly earned their hero status; we want to know that they have suffered. This is harder to get that across when all basic needs are met with abundance from the beginning.

But I do feel sympathy for Katharine. The fact that her parents were absent during most of her childhood lend greatly to this—her difficult relationship with her self-absorbed mother, her distant relationship with her wildly successful father all help to build my sympathy. The fact that she is so humble as she tells her story and that she tells us about her self doubt. The fact that she wasn’t incredibly beautiful and didn’t simply get by on her looks. It helps too, that she really did master the skill of writing as evidenced by her career and her autobiography. She is able to laugh at herself in several places.

One example is when Katharine humourously critiques herself as a mother: “One week when she [the nanny] was away, Donny fell out of his crib because I had left the side down, and out of his swing while I was weeding the yard. He ended up looking like Donald Duck, with his swollen upper lip sticking out an inch. That was the same week I put the nipples for his bottles on to boil and forgot them while I took time out to call people for a party. When the smell of burning alerted me, I found flames a foot high shooting out of the pan, threw it into the sink to put out the fire, and turned the water on, only to have the pot explode glass all over the place. I couldn’t help wondering how the children would fare if I took care of them all the time.”

Also funny is her comparison of childbirth to moving.

Katharine lived through the time in our country where women were expected to put their husbands and their families before themselves, all the time, and it appears that she did this. When her father handed over the management of The Washington Post to her husband, Phil, Katharine said she knew a man was needed to run the publication. It never occurred to her that she had been passed over. And even with all the cushion of her wealth, the values and expectations of the time didn’t sheild her from the average woman’s martial experience: “It was typical of our marital relationship that Phil conceived the idea of a country house for summers and weekends, and I did the actual work.”

And while that statement seems slightly bitter, on the whole, Katharine’s account of her husband is very loving and gentle. Looking back on her life, Katharine discovers the clues of her husband’s depression, clues she wishes she had understood better at the time. She says that because she had very little knowledge of the disease that she didn’t make the best choices to deal with it. And certainly in the whirlwind of their lives, with their relationships with people like Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy, the social pressures must have been enormous for both Katharine and Phil.

For someone like me, who does not have massive wealth at her disposal, it does seem that a different life could have been had. Unbridled ambition and haunting self doubt seem to have been Phil’s undoing. But who am I to say. If I were rubbing elbows of the President of the United States and in a position to influence the course of our nation, I’m sure I could be tempted by this trap as well.

I marvel at how kind Katharine remained toward Phil, even after he lost complete control of his manic depressive disorder and even after he had a very open affair during which he wanted to divorce her. When Phil wanted to come back, she accepted him without hesitation, even with all the hurt, even knowing what his future bouts might bring. Even so, she hadn’t guessed that he would commit suicide as soon as he had the opportunity. But Phil, I guess, in realizing the enormity of his depression and his utter inability to control it fell into extreme hopelessness. That, coupled with his very public affair which he finally came to realize had hurt the woman who had given him everything, his whole identity at the Post. The fact of these two insolvable problems plus the weight of the depression must have led him to the conclusion that there was only one way out.

Not to appear unsympathetic, but this part made me think of William Styron’s Darkness Visible, in which he says that even with all the pain of depression, the one thing that kept him from committing suicide was that he couldn’t bare what it would do to his family when they found him. For Phil, this doesn’t seem to have been a consideration. He shot himself in their bathroom.

After Phil died, Katharine decided to run The Washington Post. Having grown up with the paper and having watched both her father and husband build it up, she felt she had no other choice. She had hardly worked a day in her life in the business world and recounted that she had much to learn. Her endless questions annoyed some of the people she would rather have befriended, but she perservered.

And it’s a good thing she did because life for Katharine Graham only got better. She recounts tales from this exciting new adventure of active participation in the publishing of the Post. Here is one example of her relationship with LBJ:

“As he was yelling at me, he started to undress, flinging his clothes off onto a chair and the floor—his coat, his tie, his shirt. Finally, he was down to his pants. I was frozen with dismay and baffled about what to do. I remember thinking to myself: This can’t be me being bawled out by the president of the United States while he’s undressing. Suddenly he bellowed, ‘Turn around!’ I did so obediently and gratefully…”

Katharine tells about the Nixon years, The Post’s role in Watergate, the changes in the roles of women over her lifetime, her friendship with Warren Buffett, and the union strike at The Washington Post. It’s wonderful to see how strong and confident she became once she became publisher of The Washington Post. It’s sad too to think that neither her father nor her husband had any inkling that she could do it. It just goes to show that you should never let anyone judge you or what you can do.

Katharine answers the necessary memoir question of “why am I writing this” towards the end. She has several reasons, but the one that stands out for me is that she hoped to gain some understanding “of how people are formed by the way they grow up and are further molded by the way they spend their days.”

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City

By Nick Flynn @ 2004 by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.; 347 pages.

An estimated 3.5 million people experience homelessness in the United States in a given year.  Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, gives us insight into that way of life.

This is the story of Nick Flynn, a caseworker at a homeless shelter in Boston, who wound up running into his estranged father as one of his “customers.” This book is the recipient of the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for Memoir and was on the list of books I was encouraged to read in grad school.

Flynn’s memoir is very well written and at times is poetic. He does a wonderful job creating scenes and reflecting. His pacing is good. Timing is good. Structure—good.

Flynn as the protagonist is a sympathetic character. I respect his ability to hold it together during these difficult times and I also respect his literary accomplishment. I can relate to the internal turmoil he feels about a parent who doesn’t always do as society expects.

I’m not sure I understand why Flynn didn’t offer his father a place to live—with Flynn. At the same time, I feel like I should understand this, knowing how hard it would be for me to live with either of my parents. All the same, with the stakes so high, I’m not sure how I would react given a similar situation.

Mental illness is a tough one, not to be taken lightly, not to be passed on. It’s hard to admit it when someone you love is afflicted. Intelligence offers no immunity, and surprisingly, increases the risk.

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City is an honest, brave examination of a very difficult and complex family situation. I’ll be keeping it close, trying to learn from it. I recommend it to anyone who has their own parental problems (few of us don’t) and/or wants to learn the craft of memoir.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Cover of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:...
Cover via Amazon

By Hunter S. Thompson; Vintage Books; @1971; 204 pages.

Since I’m soon to be off to Las Vegas to see my father on Father’s Day—and to experience this iconic city, I thought it would be appropriate to read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I’ve heard about this book (and movie) for years, but somehow never got around to it, sort of how I never got around to Las Vegas.

Like Thompson, I am in search of the American Dream. I want to know what the American Dream means to me.

Hunter S. Thompson (and Jack Kerouac) would have us believe that the American Dream is about taking what you can get. There is an absence of responsibility and a love of indulgence. (Look at Las Vegas—enormous fountains of water in the desert dancing with lights.)

If the drug culture scene bothers you, don’t read this book.

So, on a sleepy Sunday morning (cue Johnny Cash music which might have been appropriate but was never referenced in the book), while the cold Spring wind whips through the trees and cancels out any warmth the sun could possibly offer, the following paragraph, the first paragraph in fact, makes me chuckle:

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive…” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas.

Our protagonist, Raoul Duke, is on his way to Las Vegas to write a news story about the Mint 400, “the richest off-the-road race for motorcycles and dune-buggies in the history of organized sport.”

I won’t give the details of what was in the trunk of his car. Suffice it to say that he and his attorney were very thorough:

The only way to prepare for a trip like this, I felt, was to dress up like human peacocks and get crazy, then screech off across the desert and cover the story.

From there the story descends into drug-addled mischief. I thought the part about the hitchhiker was outstanding. The voice of the novel was strong. Whereas Keroac really put me off with his irresponsibility, with Thompson, it’s somehow forgivable, understandable, and endearing. I think this is because throughout the book, there is the thread of personal reflection that this might not really be the best way to behave, but since he has chosen this path, he’s going to do his best—to excel. The guy is an overachiever in this realm. Maybe that’s what I like. He’s no slacker once he’s chosen his course.

By the end of the book, Raoul Duke has broken every Vegas rule: burning the locals, abusing the tourists, and terrifying the help.

Except for the strength of the narrator’s voice, I don’t see much reason to read this book. It was ok, but that’s not quite enough these days.

I’m not sure this book got me much closer to the American Dream; I don’t really have that much hope for Vegas either, but maybe. Here’s a quote from the end of the book that I thought would be interesting to ponder, or come back to:

…This was the fatal flaw of Tim Leary’s trip. He crashed around America selling “consciousness expansion” without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him too seriously….But their [acid freaks] loss and failure is ours, too. What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped to create…a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody—or at least some force—is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel.

In the middle of reading the book, I watched the movie. Even though I enjoyed Johnny Depp’s performance, I don’t recommend the movie. The book somehow was less offensive.

The Zone: A Prison Camp Guard’s Story

The ZoneBy Sergei Dovlatov; Translated by Anne Frydman; Russian edition @1982; English edition @1984; My edition @2011; Counterpoint Press; 182 pages.

Perhaps Dovlatov is the Soviet version of George Carlin, sans the vulgar tirades and the four letter words.

Here is the introductory statement by the author:

The names, events, and dates given here are all real. I invented only those details that were not essential.

Therefore, any resemblance between the characters in this book and living people is intentional and malicious. And all the fictionalizing was unexpected and accidental.

Dovlatov always had an excellent structure for his books. In The Compromise, it was a series of increasingly absurd compromises. In The Suitcase, the chapters were organized by what he found in his suitcase and the relevance of each item to his life.

In this book, Dovlatov has come to America. He has written the book, The Zone, while still in the USSR, but couldn’t risk taking it with him when he left. As a result, several of his friends have smuggled small parts of the book out while traveling to various places in the free world. Dovlatov is now trying to reassemble his book. The serious content of The Zone is tempered by Dovlatov’s letters to his editor talking about his current life in the U.S. and commenting on the manuscript he is now submitting in parts.

As one might imagine, being a prison guard was pretty horrible not to mention shocking at times.

Awful things happened around me. People reverted to an animal state. We lost our human aspect—being hungry, humiliated, tortured by fear.

young dovlatovThis is the darkest of Dovlatov’s books. But while dark, it still contains his philosophical bent which I enjoy so much. I thought his strategy for dealing with his job was very interesting:

I felt better than could have been expected. I began to have a divided personality. Life was transformed into literary material…I began to think of myself in the third person.

Dovlatov says he doesn’t agree with the ancients—that a sound body means a sound mind. Instead, he says that people who are physically healthy are most often spiritually blind and morally apathetic.

He says he was very healthy.

Since the time of Aristotle, the human brain has not changed. What is more, human consciousness has not changed.

Dovlatov rails against not being able to get his work published in the Soviet Union, but really, what did he expect when he said things like this:

… a prison camp is a pretty accurate representation of a country in miniature, the Soviet state in particular. Within a camp, you have a dictatorship of the proletariat (which is to say, the camp administration), the people (the prisoners), and the police (guards).

Dovlatov says that literature has historically portrayed the prisoner/guard relationship in one of two ways. Either the prisoners are to be pitied or the guards are. To him, both views are wrong:

Almost any prisoner would have been suited to the role of a guard. Almost any guard deserved a prison term.

For anyone wanting to read Dovlatov, I wouldn’t start with this book. Even though I really liked the book and appreciated what Dovlatov had to say and his characteristic humor, I’m not sure I would have been so compelled to keep reading him if I had started here. (The order I suggest? The Compromise, The Suitcase, A Foreign Woman, The Zone.)

So has the spell been broken? (Will I be rushing out to buy more D?)

Well, as I finish this book, I think about how jaded and disillusioned a person might become after having similar experiences. Here is a man who didn’t graduate from university. He trained as a heavyweight boxer. He saw horrific things and experienced ongoing fear.

Yet, through it all, (not having had everything given to him, not having had a pampered existence and the best education, freedom for travel throughout his life, money, etc.) through it all, he retained his humanity. He retained his capacity for mercy and compassion. How did he do this? Do these kinds of circumstances breed empathy and emotional maturity?

It makes you think, especially on days like today with all the crazy news stories—the Boston Marathon bombing, an NPR story about a company you can hire to get the kidnapping experience, and other more horrific things I don’t want to get into.

(This post is also available on my portfolio blog.)