Recommended by a good friend I love and respect, a psychologist by profession and warm and sensitive spirit by nature, when she heard my brother was b...moreRecommended by a good friend I love and respect, a psychologist by profession and warm and sensitive spirit by nature, when she heard my brother was battling pancreatic cancer.
It took me a long time -- 3 years, actually -- to get to this book. I have to admit, the reason was that I was afraid to read it. My friend lent me her copy during the months when my brother was being treated for cancer, and I didn't know if I would be able to handle reading about someone who lost her own battle. I finally picked it up this year, and as fate would have it, my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer while I was reading it. So much for avoiding reading it during a trying time in my life...
As it turns out, though, my fears were pretty well unfounded. As my friend had said herself, Grace and Grit was a very uplifting story of someone who was transformed over the course of her 5-year battle with recurring cancer, who reached a new level of understanding and peace in her life and served as an inspiration to all who knew her as well as to many who have read her story since.
The story is that of Treya Killam Wilber and her husband Ken Wilber, who meet and fall instantly in love, are married within months, and just weeks later are hit with the devastating news that Treya has been afflicted with breast cancer. Their 5 years together are dominated by Treya's health -- episodes of remission and recurrence, a wild array of treatments and approaches, the cancer's increasing aggressivity -- and their struggle as a couple as their love grows but their relationship is tested by the slings and arrows of their outrageous fortune. The book is also an examination of their spiritual progression, and much space is given over to explanations of spiritual seeking and practices from Ken Wilber, a well-known expert in the field of what most people would characterize as new-age-type spiritualty,
As a result, I would say that reading this is not for the faint of heart. Not, as you might expect, because of Treya's illness and treatment, but rather because of the spirituality/philosophy discussions, which are weighty, academic, and arcane, and far beyond most people's level of engagement with such things. I often found myself wishing I could excise away most of that discussion, and give much more time over to Treya's story. One of the nice parts of the book is that Ken includes excerpts from Treya's journals, and I would have enjoyed hearing even more of her voice. To be honest, Ken himself sometimes comes off in the book as someone who rather likes to hear himself speak -- although he does deserve much recognition for being stoically honest in owning up to some of his own failings as Treya's partner and caregiver, and he does not dress up his own mistakes.
The best and most interesting parts of the book were those that had to do with Treya. I have my own struggles with (against?) traditional religion, and I don't think that simply switching allegiances to other, more exotic or alternative spiritual paths is a solution to the problem. Having said that, since I didn't actually skip any part of the book, the spirituality parts did spark a few intriguing questions even for me, but it was not what I came to the book to get. Treya's journey, on the other hand, not only kept my interest engaged, but also, as a person with two close relatives affected by cancer, and conscious of the distinct possibility that I may one day face it myself, reading about Treya's experience opened new perspectives in my understanding of what my family members were/are experiencing, and encouraged me to contemplate many new questions regarding how I might want to go through such a situation myself. For example, when Treya gets her first diagnosis of cancer, she captures in her journal her feelings of untethered isolation and bewilderment at the future, writing simply:
"Should I prepare to live? Or should I prepare to die? I do not know. No one can tell me. They can give me figures, but no one can tell me." (p. 39)
Also, she often returns to the theme of the myriad meanings that we give to illness, and how we often subconsciously blame the patient for his or her own disease, even when that patient is ourselves. One lesson I hope to remember from Treya's story is this:
"Pain is not punishment, death is not a failure, life is not a reward." (p. 279)
Not having read any of Ken Wilber's 800,000 other books, I only have this one to judge his skill as a writer, but on the basis of this one, I'd have to say his ideas are a bit ahead of his writing skills, to put it mildly. The first and most important complaint I have about the writing itself is that I finished the book really feeling that Ken failed to show, rather than tell, his readers about the kind of person Treya was. Again and again, Ken remarks on how wonderful she was, how everybody not only loved her but was inspired, moved, transformed by her. However, he rarely if ever gives examples of this, and as such, it's really hard just to accept what he says at face value. I mean, I'm sure she was a nice person and all, but isn't everyone who is close to someone going to say, oh, she was such a wonderful person? Just telling me over and over again doesn't convince me that she was any more extraordinary than any other nice human being on the earth. If you really want to convince me, help me feel what was special about her. As my high school composition teacher taught us, use examples to make your point, illustrate with details.
Secondly, for all his new-age/advanced/evolved thinking, Ken comes off as a fair bit of a sexist. Of course, I'm sure he would say all the right things about women's rights and gender roles, etc., etc. But at the same time, throughout the book women -- but not men -- are always introduced with some comment about their good looks. It really felt like no woman who entered the narrative was described without reference to her physical beauty. And despite the obvious deep-soul connection Ken has with Treya, most descriptions of why he loves her or why he was attracted to her begin first with a comment about how beautiful she was. I found it really condescending and trivializing toward women. If he did the same thing with men, it would sound ridiculous -- it would sound as ridiculous as it is. Take this description of one woman, for example: "She was tall, statuesque, good-looking, with black hair, red lipstick, a red dress, and black high heels." Multiply that by a factor of about, oh, thirty, to cover virtually every new woman who comes into the story. Now imagine he said of a man they had just met: "He was tall, magnificent, handsome, with sandy hair, shiny white teeth, a blue suit, and black wingtips." Now multiply that by a factor of 30 and you'll get an idea of how silly and annoying it is to have to deal with that type of description of practically every woman in the book. Pretty basic stuff, Ken. Time to read up on a little feminism. To be fair, I do think this is largely unconscious on his part, but that still doesn't make it right.
Leaving aside the writing style, if you are a follower of Ken Wilber and/or the type of spirituality he focuses on, I'm sure you'll find much to love here. If you're not, there is still a lot to learn from in the book in terms of living with cancer. For example, the best explanation of chemotherapy I have ever come across can be found on page 132:
"Aside from surgery, the main forms of Western medicine's attack on cancer -- chemotherapy and radiation -- are based on a single principle: cancer cells are extremely fast-growing. They divide much more rapidly than any of the body's normal cells. Therefore, if you administer an agent to the body that kills cells when they divide, then you will kill some normal cells but many more cancer cells. That is what both radiation and chemotherapy do. Of course the normal cells in the body that grow more rapidly than others -- such as hair, stomach lining, and mouth tissue -- will also be killed more rapidly, hence accounting for frequent hair loss, stomach nausea, and so on. But the overall idea is simple: Since cancer cells grow twice as fast as normal cells, then at the end of a successful course of chemotherapy, the tumor is totally dead and the patient is only half-dead." [emphasis in original:]
Also, even though at 20 years out, the book is quite dated, you can still get a good feel for some alternative cancer treatments, as well as the difference between approaches to cancer treatment between cultures, especially with respect to the treatment Treya undergoes in Germany. For example, this description of conversations with Treya's doctor in Germany when asked about particular treatments used in the US:
" 'We don't do it because the quality of life is so much lower. You must never forget,' he said, 'around the tumor is a human being.' [. . . :] We asked him about another treatment that was popular in the States. 'No, we don't do that.' 'Why?' 'Because,' he said directly, 'it poisons the soul.' Here was the man famous for the most aggressive chemotherapy in the world, but there were things he simply would not do because they damaged the soul." (p. 288)
Finally, two more quotes that spoke to me:
(1) "Ken likes to say that the work we do on ourselves, whether it's psychological or spiritual, is not meant to get rid of the waves in the ocean of life but for us to learn how to surf." (p. 378) This was a nice way of putting an idea that is partially captured by sayings like "Don't sweat the small stuff" and "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." To me, the goal of life is contentment, and equanimity, and it would seem that a sure path to a discontented, dissatisfied life is to spend your days trying to stop the waves.
(2) "To forgive others for insults, real or imagined, is to weaken the boundary between self and other, to dissolve the sense of separation between subject and object." (p. 158). When I read this, I thought not so much of forgiveness, but of my field, grassroots rights work and community organizing. Real help for oppressed people comes from a compassion that is rooted in solidarity -- I am not helping you with your struggles; rather, your struggle is my struggle. It reminds me of the quote, well-known among activists, from Lila Watson, member of an Aboriginal women's rights group: "If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." Real help comes from dissolving the separation between us and them, betwen subject and object. Without this solidarity, what you have is not compassion; it is patronizing, it is paternalism. (less)
A borrowed book; only made it around 1/3 the way through before I had to return it. will have to pick up my own copy, as what I read was really quite...moreA borrowed book; only made it around 1/3 the way through before I had to return it. will have to pick up my own copy, as what I read was really quite good and very informative. (less)
This was the first real "grown-up" non-fiction book I ever read -- recommended to me while I was still in high school by my father, of all people. It'...moreThis was the first real "grown-up" non-fiction book I ever read -- recommended to me while I was still in high school by my father, of all people. It's an excellent chronicle of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, as it was first being recognized. Along the way Shilts documents the bias and indifference of the medical profession to the odd health complaints of a "subculture", the heroic efforts of a few lonely but committed stalwarts fighting an uphill battle to bring attention to this disease, and how the egos of medical professionals, the parochial interests of both the public health establishment as well as supposed advocacy organizations, and the vagaries of politics, among many other things, combined to exacerbate rather than ameliorate a massive public health calamity.
Young-uns encountering AIDS from the far, far safer perspective of the early 21st century will surely find this an eye-opening look at a truly scary and regrettable moment in our social history.(less)
Very worthwhile reading. A journalistic account of the Rwandan genocide. Maybe a little lacking in academic rigor (could use footnotes!), but a thorou...moreVery worthwhile reading. A journalistic account of the Rwandan genocide. Maybe a little lacking in academic rigor (could use footnotes!), but a thorough and very comprehensible account of the myriad factors leading up to the genocidal violence. A good source for anyone trying to understand the Rwandan genocide. In addition to the historical roots, the book shares heartrending stories of affected families, and provides glimpses of everyday heroism that nonetheless occurred in the midst of all the chaos.(less)
This book is absolutely indispensable. Cohen guides the reader through the pitfalls of the US health system, and demonstrates convincingly how crucial...moreThis book is absolutely indispensable. Cohen guides the reader through the pitfalls of the US health system, and demonstrates convincingly how crucial it is for patients to learn to be their own best advocates in a medical system that is largely stacked against them.
Cohen covers topics as extreme as careless misdiagnosis and grievous medical errors, as maddening as the disproportionate and harmful influence of pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies driven only by their bottom line, and as mundane as the typical long waits and rushed appointments of the everyday doctor's appointment.
And it's all done in a casual, easy-to-understand, supportive tone. Cohen uses a lot of real examples, from the many people she has come across in her role as CNN medical correspondent, as well as from her own personal experience. She also arms the reader with a collection of important tools, including a worksheet to use to prepare for medical appointments, a guide to reliable and unbiased web resources for learning about your diagnosis, suggestions for reaching out to relevant experts, and even approaches to finding and reading medical literature about conditions and treatments.
After reading this book, anyone should be able to stride confidently into their next encounter with the health care system. It's absolutely essential reading, and I recommend it to everyone.(less)
Halberstam’s October 1964 gives readers an exhilarating ride through a pivotal season in baseball. I began the book expecting a play by play of a land...moreHalberstam’s October 1964 gives readers an exhilarating ride through a pivotal season in baseball. I began the book expecting a play by play of a landmark World Series, and the games leading up to it. In the end, the details of the games themselves are actually the lesser part of the story. What you get instead is so much more: a detailed, humanizing, and illuminating portrait of many of the faces of baseball, from background actors like scouts and coaches, to the big name managers and owners, to superstar players themselves. Halberstam not only captures the personalities of all these players (in the theatre sense of the word) but also creates a detailed picture of an era of change and challenge, both in the world of baseball, and in the country itself.
I came to this book with barely more than a beginner’s knowledge of baseball. Until this year, I knew just the basics – there’s a pitcher, an infield and an outfield, a team at bat, strikes, outs, and home runs. But as fate would have it, I returned to the US after several years away just in time to catch the 2010 pennant chase by the hometown heroes of my current city, the Philadelphia Phillies. I began watching the games solely to keep my sports-fan boyfriend company, and at first, I mostly just tolerated the games. Within a week or two, though, he began to hear me reminding him, hey, isn’t there a baseball game on tonight? By the end of the month, it was me saying, OK, we’ve gotta get home, there’s a Phillies game tonight! In this short span I seem to have fallen in love with baseball, and I can just about begin to talk about ground rule doubles and sacrifice plays, and I know what it means when I hear a pitcher is behind in the count, or a batter strikes out looking.
It was in this frame of mind, excitedly cheering on October baseball behind “my” new-found Phillies, that I reached for my boyfriend’s copy of October 1964. In a word, I was captivated. Halberstam’s exhaustive treatment – he interviewed close to one hundred people for the book – excels in weaving together countless essential moments in the history of baseball: the rise and decline of individual players, the motives and missteps of some of the powerful owners, the insights and commitment of legions of scouts, coaches and managers. Before this season, I could have told you that Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were big names in baseball, but that’s about it. After reading this book, I have a vivid mental picture of not only the marquee names that even a non-baseball-fan would know, but also of other notables like Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Elston Howard, and Pete Mikkelsen, and dozens more.
One of the things that struck me most in Halberstam’s book is the feeling I got of an element of almost Greek tragedy in baseball, where fortunes can turn on an instant, and nothing can be taken for granted. Take, for example, the intersecting fates of pitchers Tom Metcalf and Pete Mikkelsen. Metcalf was an up and coming pitching star, seemingly poised for his best season yet, with a strong and consistently improving record, and a well-rounded arsenal of pitches. Mikkelsen was a struggling minor-league pitcher, sure he was on his way out, with sagging stats, and an injury to start the season. But then, Mikkelsen’s injury forces him to alter his pitching style, limiting his range of pitches, but ironically resulting in a wildly effective sinking pitch. Now, pitching star Metcalf is unexpectedly eclipsed by the sudden, peculiar consistency of the erstwhile loser’s spot-on sinker. Mikkelsen makes the cut on the Yankees roster; Metcalf does not. Sent back down to the minors, the former pitching star tries to compensate by throwing all his work into his sinker – and is rewarded for his trouble by a season-ending injury, and never plays major league ball again.
The other standout element of Halberstam’s book is his masterful treatment of the racial dynamics of the era. The book covers the critical early period of integration in baseball, and Halberstam’s insight into the tensions at play is clear-eyed and frank. He does not dress up blatant racism where he sees it, nor does he oversentimentalize the real achievements of racial integration when they occurred. His presentation of the inner and outer struggles of black players such as Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, and Elston Howard is nuanced and careful, and I came away awed by the fierce sense of presence of Bob Gibson, inspired by the unwavering determination of Lou Brock, and heartsore over the slings and arrows endured by Elston Howard, and the resulting effects on his health and on his psyche.
The book was excellent, and I enjoyed it completely. My only quibbles with it are partly a result of my lack of knowledge about the subject, but still important to mention. One, with the encyclopedic scope of the narrative, I feel the book suffers for lack of an index. Especially for a baseball-novice reader like me, at times it was difficult to keep everything straight, and I often lamented not being able to easily flip back to a previous section to refresh my memory on a particular story. Two, a schematic of how the key personalities relate to each other or to the game – even just a roster of Yankee and Cardinal staff – would have been immensely helpful in locating each of the individual characters in the greater narrative. Still, these are quibbles, and some will hopefully be remedied simply by me expanding my knowledge of baseball before going back for my inevitable re-read of October 1964. (less)
By now, Donald Norman's Design of Everyday Things is a classic text on what we have learned to call user-friendly design. Twenty-first century readers...moreBy now, Donald Norman's Design of Everyday Things is a classic text on what we have learned to call user-friendly design. Twenty-first century readers will no doubt find it dated (see references to"computer mail"), but it is truly a must-read none the less. By exploring fundamental design principles through human interactions with everyday things -- doors, telephones, light and power switches, even cars -- Norman demolishes the notion of "user error" and lays down a roadmap for achieving truly user-centered design.
Long before I ever knew of this book, I already had a sense of how the way a product, an object, or a system is designed can have an impact on how well or badly people use it, or how much they enjoy or avoid using it. I am constantly redesigning things in my head: bad design drives me batty, and I have been known to kvetch to anyone in earshot, you know, if they just put this here instead..., or something to that effect. (In fact, I complain about this sort of thing so often, my partner has picked it up from me -- now, when something doesn't work right, he'll just throw a glance my way and say, "Bad design!") Good design, on the other hand, always grabs my attention. By and large, though, my responses were emotional. Reading this book not only confirmed my impulses, but more importantly, helped me understand just why bad design is annoying and even dangerous. In lucid, easy to follow prose, Norman breaks down the elements of functional design into crucial component parts: Good design is not good by accident; rather, design is good when a few key principles are honored. By contrast, when something is hard to operate, look for a violation of one or more of these principles. And, significantly, much of what has historically been attributed to "user error" is really a problem of bad design.
When this book was first published in 1998, it was titled The Psychology of Everyday Things. In the introduction to the 2002 edition, Norman explains that the "Psychology" in the title threw readers and booksellers off (it was often filed in the "psychology" section of bookstores, rather than with design books), and he re-titled it to better reflect its focus on design. However, it bears mentioning that psychology is not irrelevant here. A unifying theme in the principles of good, user-focused design is that they take into account the psychology of the human beings who will use the objects in question. Norman demonstrates the human tendency to create one's own explanations for processes and purposes that are unclear, and that often, people come up with the wrong explanation. Following the internal logic of a wrong explanation, or, to put it more academically, operating under a misguided conceptual model, can cause people to have trouble with what ought to be a simple, everyday object.
In describing how people undertake any action, Norman outlines several stages, divided into two basic phases: execution and evaluation. We start with an idea in our head of an outcome we want, and how to make it happen. In the execution phase, we do the things we understand we need to do to create that outcome. In the evaluation stage, we consider whatever feedback that is available to us to determine whether we've successfully created the outcome. Good design invisibly addresses all the stages within those two phases. The key principles to observe include visibility (the user should be able to tell by looking what a thing is doing at any particular moment, and what options there are), a clear conceptual model (the user's idea of how a thing works actually is how the thing works), intuitive mapping (controls are consonant with the actions they perform -- for example, something that should be pushed should not have a handle that looks like it should be grasped), and feedback (the user should be able to tell clearly and quickly what effect any action they've taken has had).
Obviously, the book explores all these points in far more detail, and it is chock full of commonplace examples and anecdotes to illustrate the points. And once you start looking, you'll find that examples abound in everyday life. Plugs that are oddly shaped so that they can only be inserted one way (or that are symmetrical, so they can be inserted either way without damage) -- these are examples of physical constraints that demand no thought on the part of the user to be used correctly. The dial on gas stove that must be pushed in and turned simultaneously to light the the burner is a forcing function that prevents the gas from being turned on inadvertently. A whistling teakettle is using sound for visibility: you know that you've achieved your desired outcome -- the water has boiled -- without looking, in fact, you know from across the room.
The Design of Everyday Things is a excellent read that will continue to stand the test of time. I would recommend it not just for designers of objects and programmers of software and websites, but for anyone who spends any part of their time creating things, even something as simple as an event calendar or a filing system, that other people will have to use. Frankly, I think it's worthwhile reading for anyone who's called themselves inept for continually making mistakes using any kind of technology. Most times, it's not you, it's the design.
As a final comment on my review, I'll share a real world story of the kind of problems good design can solve. The first time I remember thinking consciously about design and safety was when I saw a magazine article about an innovative new design for prescription medicine bottles. A design grad student embarking on her Master's project was motivated by an incident when her grandmother accidentally mistook her husband's medication for her own. Fortunately, the grandmother suffered no serious effects, but it led the design student, Deborah Adler, to seriously reconsider the problems inherent in the design of the standard prescription bottle. As her thesis project, Adler redesigned it. Her new prescription bottle was flat-sided instead of round, so no more having to twist it around to read all the instructions on the label. The caps of the bottles would be color-coded with a different bright color ring for every person in a household, to make it a lot harder to mistake someone else's medicine for your own. The flat-sided design created more space for print on the label, so that the drug name and instructions could be printed more readably. Adler's student project was a runaway success. It was adopted by the Target chain as their "Clear Rx" prescription bottle, and won design awards. Check out the photo essay on Adler's website and see if you don't agree: http://www.deborahadlerdesign.com/cas... (less)
In trying to describe this book and the work of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the first thing that came to my mind was the words of poet Dyla...moreIn trying to describe this book and the work of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the first thing that came to my mind was the words of poet Dylan Thomas. Watching Russia’s barely-worthy-of-the-term democracy steadily crumble, Politkovskaya stubbornly refused to let it go gentle into that good night. A Russian Diary is a rage against the dying of the light. It is a brilliant and sobering piece of work that should be required reading for anyone with an interest in current world politics, and for anyone who believes in the critical role of a free press in keeping governments honest. Politkovskaya takes your breath away with her unblinking look at the many, many wrongs of Russian politics and society, and with her determination to continue to expose all she can, albeit at tremendous risk to herself.
For those who don’t follow world politics or who don't know much about Russia, a brief introduction may be in order. Former President and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin enjoys support within Russia and stature amongst leaders internationally, but it is also well known that the life-long KGB man (who later headed the Federal Security Bureau, successor to the KGB) rules in a way that echoes darker times in Russia’s past. The country is governed through strongman tactics and corruption abounds. Journalists and human rights defenders face pressure and intimidation, and several – including Politkovskaya herself – have been assassinated. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia waged two wars against the breakaway region of Chechnya (located at the southern edge of Russia, near Georgia and Turkey), and other regions in the area have been the site of violent conflict in recent years. Numerous terrorist attacks have occurred in Russia during this time as well, in connection with those conflicts.
No matter how much you know about Russia and its recent history, though, A Russian Diary is sure to be an eye-opener. The book, covering the period from the Russian parliamentary elections in late 2003 until the end of 2005, is Politkovskaya’s diary-style reflection on contemporary events in Russia as they happened. (She also includes additional commentary for context or when later events clarify earlier events.) This period sees the solidification of Vladimir Putin’s strong-armed rule; ongoing human rights abuses in Chechnya and other southern territories; the stifling and gradual cooptation of human rights activists by the Putin government; the continuing impoverishment of the population throughout Russia, and especially in the smaller villages and peripheral provinces; and a devastating number of deadly terrorist attacks, including, most tragically, the September 2004 siege of an elementary school in the town of Beslan in North Ossetia.
To put it bluntly, Politkovskaya’s Russia is one scary place. The first part of the book is entitled “The Death of Russian Parliamentary Democracy,” an ominous title that is shown to be only too true. From the outset, when the pro-Putin United Russia party sweeps to power in the Duma (the Russian parliament), it seems Putin is fated to win re-election to a second term as president, and the parties of Russia’s “democrats” seem completely unable – and/or unwilling – to do anything other than squabble amongst themselves. In the end they are totally unable to raise any realistic opposition against the Putin machine. Eventually, first one then another and another democrat crosses over to Putin’s party. Soon it is patently clear that the choice is to join forces with Putin, or watch your political career disappear. One presidential candidate does actually disappear, his whereabouts unknown until he resurfaces with a stranger-than-fiction tale of being kidnapped, smuggled by government forces over the border to a secret service site in Ukraine, and drugged to extract information. After the incident he withdraws his candidacy and travels to London, from whence he announces he will not return to Russia: a defection by a presidential candidate from a democratic country.
The book is replete with these and many other jaw-dropping details of life in contemporary Russia. It becomes incontrovertibly clear that the notion of “democracy” in Russia is a pathetic sham. Politkovskaya paints a portrait of Russia as a place where only power and influence and money speak – and money only sometimes. Reading A Russian Diary, one is struck by a sense of gaping disbelief at the parade of calamities that occur day by day, which Politkovskaya recounts with a quiet, steely outrage. In most other places in the world, just one out of the litany of crises she documents would be considered a disaster or an atrocity. In Russia, they are received with a sort of numbed horror at best, or with numb acceptance at worst. Sometimes a few brave souls rise up to fight against whatever new indignity Russia has heaped upon them but their efforts seem doomed. The politicians are no help. Putin and his men keep a stranglehold on the country, through the media, through manipulation, through influence peddling. In the face of this level of control, the ability of ordinary people to get redress is practically non-existent.
And this is a society where almost no ordinary person gets off easy. Soldiers are haphazardly sacrificed by feuding commanders in Chechnya. That is, if they make it that far: scores of young recruits die just from the unbelievably harsh treatment they receive in basic training. Veterans are so abandoned to poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, drug addiction, and post-traumatic stress that in one town alone, a 200-member Association of Servicemen of the Chechen Wars has been established – inside the prison. Pensioners can barely survive on their paltry pensions, and face losing in-kind benefits in place of laughably inadequate monetary “replacement” payments. Orphanages struggle with dwindling resources – especially after charitable donations from the wealthy dry up when tax credits for them are abolished. Ordinary workers are routinely underpaid, or paid in goods only. And, in a country where the threat of terrorism is a true constant, investigations are stonewalled in order to protect government officials.
Politkovskaya tells heartbreaking stories of the families of Beslan. Not just about the loss of their children in the 2004 school attack, but of the horrors those in the school suffered during both the siege and the criminally botched assault on the school by government forces, as well as of the ongoing suffering of the survivors as they are ignored and misled by the authorities and forgotten by the pubic at large in the months after the attack. (On December 11, 2004, four months after the attack, Politkovskaya writes, “As for Beslan, the town is quietly going out of its mind." And she means it. )
Given all that Politkovskaya so unflinchingly reveals in this book, two questions must inevitably stand out in the reader’s mind. One, in light of what ultimately happened to her, how did Anna Politkovskaya manage to stay alive and publish all that she did as long as she did? She could not but have been one of the worst thorns in the side of Russia’s powerful. Knowing her final end, reading what she wrote, it seems so tragically inevitable that someone would try to silence her permanently.
The second question is, what are the democratic governments of the West doing, carrying on relations with Putin’s Russia as if it were a normal country? Perhaps it is no more than the idea that in its current state, it’s safer to keep Russia within the fold, rather than outside it.
There is no reason to suspect anything has changed since the book’s publication. Putin has managed to keep himself in power, while formally leaving the office of President in the proper way, by anointing a loyal protégé as his successor as president and becoming prime minister himself. Human rights forces continue to face pressure and opposition (a few years ago, the Moscow office of the international organization I worked for had to go through a confounding process of “re-registration” suddenly required for all human rights organizations operating in Russia). And terrorism remains a constant in Russia, with the most recent examples, as I write this, of a bombing at a theatre in Stavropol on May 26, 2010, and two subway bombings in Moscow in March 2010.
As I mentioned at the outset, A Russian Diary should be required reading for anyone with an interest in current world politics. However, last and absolutely not least, the book is a critical statement of the indispensability of a free press in any society. It is a powerful testimony to the fierce heroism of tenacious and committed journalists around the world, who never cease to amaze me with their unwillingness to let go of the story of abuse of power, even at the cost of extreme risk to themselves. The lack of an adequate press in Russia has to be included among the reasons for its current condition, and Politkovskaya’s book shows how desperately a strong, free press is needed. While successive waves of formerly “opposition” politicians – erstwhile champions of democracy – gave in to political pressure to join the pro-Putin choir, and other journalists and news outlets self-censored and shrank away from reporting facts uncomfortable to the Putin administration, Anna Politkovskaya relentlessly continued to pull back the curtain on the Great and Powerful Oz every chance she got. A Russian Diary shows her to be uncompromising and unstoppable – until, that is, someone found a way to stop her forever, with an assassin’s bullet, on October 7, 2006. Her work and life demonstrate the power of the pen to strike fear in to the hearts of dictators and tyrants of all stripes.
A year before his defection to the West in 1951, the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote, “Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.” In this case, it's the journalist.
As long as this review is, I can't help making it even longer by including some quotes. There are so many I didn't know where to begin -- or where to stop, evidently...
"This whole system of thieving judges, rigged elections, presidents who have only contempt for the needs of their people can operate only if nobody protests."
[Politkovskaya published frames a from a video made by a Russian soldier in Chechnya in 2000, showing Russian soldiers tormenting a group of prisoners of war they had already beaten horribly.:]
"What happened when the frames from this record of our own Abu Ghraib were published? Nothing. Nobody turned a hair, neither the public, nor the media, nor the Procurator’s Office. Many foreign journalists borrowed the video from me, and in Poland the headline over the pictures was “The Russian Abu Ghraib.” In Russia there was silence."
"What is emerging in Russia is not a stabilizing middle class, but a new class consisting of parents whose children have died in terrorist acts."
"People didn’t elect Yeltsin in 1996 because they believed in his prescription for taking the country forward, but because they feared what might happen if the Communists got back in. Government resources were shamelessly exploited, national television stations broadcast only in favor of Yeltsin and were in effect his campaign cheerleaders. People turned away in disgust when they saw how the ‘democratic’ parties kept silent about this travesty of democracy. A number of democrats even stated openly that it was reasonable to sacrifice the truth in order to save democracy.
This enthusiasm for sacrificing the truth caught on, and became the main force propelling Putin to power after Yeltsin proclaimed him is successor. The Kremlin took control of all television news coverage, with independent stations allowed only to provide entertainment, even when hundreds were being killed in Chechnya.
And that was the end of that. The election was based on trickery, fraudulence, and state coercion. The democrats kept mum, trying to cling to their vestiges of power in the Duma and locally. They forfeited whatever was left of their authority, and the Russian people are now profoundly indifferent to all things political. That is the terrible legacy of 13 years of Russian democracy.
[In June 2005, the trial begins a group of young pro-democracy activists arrested after a demonstration in December 2004. The are charged with "organizing mass disorder." They are led into the courtroom chained together, and placed into barred “cages” for the accused.:]
"It has to be said that putting as-yet-unconvicted people in chains and cages seems something of an overreaction; not even terrorists and serial rapists are brought to court in chains. As we can see, those whom the state authorities really fear today are dissidents."
"Officially, 58 percent of those surveyed approve of the slogan ‘Russia for the Russians.’ Another 58 percent, when asked what they would do if they earned a decent salary, said they would immediately buy property abroad and emigrate."
This just popped up on my "recommendations" page, and I'm shocked to see I hadn't added it among my books, because it's just about one of the funniest...moreThis just popped up on my "recommendations" page, and I'm shocked to see I hadn't added it among my books, because it's just about one of the funniest things I've ever read. "Anguished English" has become a known catchphrase in my home. It's a little book chock-a-block with grammar bloopers, malapropisms, and not-quite-right translations that leaves you rolling. :)(less)