I've been having terrible luck keeping up with the book group that I'm theoretically a part of of (I haven't been to a monthly meeting in, oh, six months?) so I thought I'd read the new One Book, One Chicago book and get in sync with a few thousand of my fellow Chicagoans.
The book is One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander* Solzhenitsyn. It is, as the title suggests, exactly one day in the life of a prisoner in a labor camp in the Soviet Union under Stalin. It's fiction, but based on Solzhenitsyn's real experiences in such camps.
Ivan Denisovich Shukhov spends most of his day trying to stay warm, thinking about food, and actually trying to get some work done (a work-gang system in the camp encourages production).
My god, this book has depressed me. I mean, it was bad enough that at the end of yet another horribly dehumanizing day, Shukhov remarks that the day was, you know, a pretty good day. I suppose there's something there about the indomitability of the human spirit or something. But what really depresses me is that I realized halfway through the book was that I was tensed up, bracing myself for the atrocities, and that they weren't coming. I'm not saying nothing bad happens in the book, I'm saying that by modern standards nothing incredibly, horribly bad happens in the book. And the fact that the god-damn gulag isn't as bad as what I know humans can do to humans is weighing heavy on my mind these days.
If you've read the book, the Chicago Public Library is hosting a forum to discuss it.
* Or Aleksandr or Alexandr. Crazy Cyrillic transliterations.