Kolia was born in one of the infamous Soviet labour camps in Siberia when Stalin was dictator. He “had the remarkable good fortune of remaining with his mother until she disappeared, which might explain how he learned to express himself with something other than primal noises and to piss standing up like the men who lived around him.”  After the disappearance of his mother, Kolia meets Josef, a fellow gulag resident, who teaches him to read and write in Russian and French, rudimentary calculus and “how to survive in the shithouses of the U.S.S.R.” Eventually Josef  disappears, too, and Kolia,  a teenager, is alone. “He still didn’t look quite like a man. In fact, it was difficult to determine Kolia’s age. He knew absolutely nothing about society and its conventions.” After the death of Stalin Kolia and others are released from prison to integrate into society. He ends up in Moscow and becomes a successful circus clown.

The rise and fall of the USSR is an interesting back story for Kolia. It is a good read.


ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK: My Year in a Woman’s Prison


Five years after having carried a bag of money across international borders for her drug dealing girl friend Kerman was charged with money laundering. Kerman was just out of college when she met “what seemed like an incredibly sophisticated older woman. And what I learned, rather quickly, was that she was involved in drug trafficking, and rather than that scaring me off, that was, you know, sort of scary but also intriguing to me.” Together they lived a jet setting life of first class travel and the best hotels. “I ended up following that woman around the globe, and at her request, I did carry a bag of drug money from Chicago to Brussels.” Soon after she ended the relationship and returned to the States to start her life over. Her arrest came out of the blue.  “The police let me know that I had been indicted in federal court in Chicago, and I had better show up for my arraignment or I’d be taken into custody. That began my journey through the American criminal justice system.”

“One of the indelible things that I came away with from my experience in prison was a much more profound understanding of inequality in American society, and how that plays out in our courts of law. Some Americans are policed in a certain way, other Americans are policed in a different way, prosecuted in a different way, and sentenced and punished in different ways. And that is often due to race, class, access to counsel, you know, really, really important issues of inequality that play out in a place where we really expect everyone to be treated equally, which is the courtroom.”

Orange is well worth the read even if you have seen the TV show on Netflix.


RAWI HAGEcockroach

Cock roach is an unusual novel full of magic realism and existentialism. The narrator survived a childhood in a war zone unnamed in the book but the author comes from Beirut. Now living in Montreal, he has been rescued from a failed suicide attempt and ordered to attend therapy sessions with an ineffectual female analyst. “I had attempted suicide out of a kind of curiosity, or maybe as a challenge to nature, to the cosmos itself, to the recurring light. I felt oppressed by it all. The question of existence consumed me.” He is confronted by the racism of his boss and others. “You know, we come to these countries for refuge and to find better lives, but it is these countries that made us leave our homes in the first place.” He envisions himself as a giant cockroach able to hide and slip into forbidden places. He breaks into people’s houses and moves among their possessions, crawling along their walls and their drains.  “Yes, I am poor, I am vermin, a bug, I am at the bottom of the scale. But I still exist.”

Cockroach begins strongly but the excellent fades in the second half. The writing is excellent. “I peeled myself out from under layers of hats, gloves and scarves, liberated myself from zippers and buttons, and endured the painful tearing Velcro that hissed like a prehistoric reptile, that split and separated like people’s lives, like exiles falling into cracks that give birth and lead to death under digging shovels that sound just like the friction of car wheels wedging snow around my mortal parts.”