thoughts on books: one day in the life of ivan denisovich

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn is an amazing book that profiles one day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet gulag. The story is short and focuses on the daily routine – the little details that come to mean everything in a life that is diminished by imprisonment. Ivan is a poor, uneducated man who is in prison because … well, it’s not really clear. Some other Russian novels use extraordinary characters to describe the dramatic and terrible circumstances of imprisonment, which then inform the prisoner’s struggles. Others tell of people whose special skills or knowledge are exploited, hidden, or contained by an authoritarian government. Ivan’s story is quieter. He represents “the poor” or “the lower class” person who ended up in the gulag for some minor crime or for breaking the rules at the wrong place and time – in the eyes of many, he is a nobody. In reality, he is in a Stalin-era work camp to do menial labor (under horrible conditions) that needs doing – fixing up buildings, repairing things, and anything else that the powers that be deem appropriate.

Ivan is having a bad day in that he doesn’t feel well but a good day in other respects. In the morning, he has a little extra bread that he hides for later. At work repairing a wall, he has a good trowel and is able to move along quickly through his work. He finds a piece of metal that he could make into a knife or other tool … and the guard doesn’t find it when he searches Ivan. He is able to gain more food by helping another inmate who receives a package. He avoids the small infractions of the rules that will bring him punishment that is far beyond the size of the “crime”. This is life for Ivan – navigating the relationships with the guards, steering clear of infractions, and negotiating with other prisoners. He tries to get along with everyone and to maintain some level of humanity when the guards, policies, and conditions are dehumanizing. Even his “good day” is characterized by filth, hunger, cold, and lack of basic necessities.

The gulag where Ivan is held is presumably in Siberia. The descriptions are so real that it makes one cold just to read about it. The prisoners wear rags, sleep on mattresses with little covering, and work in the cold. It is below zero and frigid. There is one scene in which their work supervisor allows paper – paper! – to cover the broken windows of the building in which they work. Using paper to try to shield them from the wind is against the rules – they are told to take down the paper, but the supervisor ignores the order. The knowledge that so many people died in the gulags is just gut-wrenching. These forced labor camps were brutal and unconcerned with individuals. It is a difficult story to read but is so wonderfully written that the reader empathizes with Ivan as he moves through his day.

One of the saddest things is that Ivan is stuck where he is, with little hope of getting out anytime soon. If there was a book called The Next Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, it would essentially be the same as this book. There is no one advocating for him. The powers that be are happy with him where he is – he’s a good worker – and have no desire to help him move on to something better. He has no privacy, no sense of safety, no dreams of better things to come. He and his fellow prisoners form friendships and try to help each other when they can, as many are (after a time) forgotten by families and friends and are alone. They exist, day after day, with little control over anything in their lives. This is a powerful little book.

thoughts on books: the heart is a lonely hunter

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was published in 1940 and is the first novel by Carson McCullers, who was 23 at the time. I feel like a complete slacker now! I really enjoyed this book. It is not a fast read – in some ways the pace of the book reflects the pace of life among the characters of the book. This is not a plot-driven book; it is more of a slice of life among people living fairly isolated and solitary lives. 

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thoughts on books: alias grace

I loved Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. The pacing was excellent and the story compelling. The fact that it is a true story of a double murder and no one really knows (or likely will ever know) what really happened was handled in a way that seemed to enhance rather than ruin the ending. The fact that so many aspects of human nature and the mind and memories and dreams were not well explored in the mid-1800s also adds to the mystery.

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thoughts on books: the great gatsby

I first read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald back in high school and liked it on a more “romantic” level – not so much about the love story component but the overall pathos of the book, if that makes any sense. There was a sense of characters being swept up into their storylines, which seemed new and different and a bit exciting. When I reread it about seven years ago, I really felt sad that there were so many people in this story who were either unhappy with their choices in life or uncomfortable with who they were as people.

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thoughts on books: children’s books

It’s always interesting to re-read books from your childhood. Will they still have that magical quality? Have I grown too cynical or “sophisticated” to enjoy them again? A couple of books still hit that sweet spot. I re-read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (and Through the Looking Glass) by Lewis Carroll and The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery a few years ago and they were lovely.

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thoughts on books: the first circle

The First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (published in 1968) is a truly remarkable book. The story plays out over a few days in December 1949 in Moscow. Although I loved One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, I had not read one of the tomes by Solzhenitsyn (e.g., The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956 or Cancer Ward), so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I knew this was set largely in a prison, so was prepared to read about a lot of physical pain, starvation, and so on. What I got was different … and so much more.

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thoughts on books: the bell jar

I read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and really loved the book – though in a sad way. I have read novels that dealt with mental illness, as well as (auto)biographical accounts, and even non-fiction. This book really touched me. The initial impact of this book in 1963 must have been something to see! It is easy to forget or minimize how influential some books (or movies or art or TV shows) were – the “first” is groundbreaking but after a while what was new becomes part of life. It seems now that just about everything is discussed in the public arena, so the impact of mental health discussions being taboo seems a bit strange.

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thoughts on books: of mice and men

I have read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men twice and both times thought it was an amazing story. In many ways, it seems to be a nearly perfect story in terms of construction and balance – the major themes of the story can be viewed through multiple characters and circumstances, and the beginning-middle-end all form a cohesive snapshot of people at a particular time, in this case during the Depression. Everything is so beautifully and clearly described that it’s easy to picture it all unfolding. It is a quiet and often lonely story about men whose voices were often not heard.

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thoughts on books: to kill a mockingbird

From the first time I read it at about age 10, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee has been one of my favorite books and I have given it a 5/5. What makes this book special to me is getting to know Scout and the relationship between Scout and Atticus. It’s like visiting an old friend. Yet, this book has come under criticism now because of how it deals with racism. I’m of mixed feelings about some of the criticism. It would be interesting to reread it now after the recent focus on systemic racism and view it from a different perspective.

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