La Fête Nationale (aka Bastille Day)

Congratulations, France! You are well entitled to the high esteem in which many of the world’s denizens hold you. I always start this day with the first few lines of La Marseillaise. Then we get to the bit about letting impure blood soak our fields and the enthusiasm ebbs ever so slightly. Lest my efforts to promote your culture succeed only in insulting you (which, alas, can be too easy to do), today we will feature books about…prison.

1. Darkness at Noon

darknessDue to the haphazard way in which my childhood library was formed (i.e., books that came with the house), selections were few and disparate. I, being of few years and desperate, picked this up when I was 10 or so. Someone really ought to have been supervising me.

The exciting adventures of Rubashov are informed by Arthur Koestler‘s own experience of arrest and imprisonment under Franco. Impending death seems to impart a great clarity (though that’s a steep price), and Koestler presents this story with a gray sense of the powerlessness of the individual and the inevitability of the state’s agenda. It is not a good book for young people, nor for those condemned. It is good for the vapid or self-absorbed, and I’m sure you know someone like that. (Don’t bother, I already have a copy.)


2. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

onedayNot usually remembered with nostalgia, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn‘s first book left two lasting impressions on my life:

  1. I named my eldest after Solzhenitsyn (the first name, not the last). I wanted him to grow up to be thoughtful, politically informed, and courageous. He did.
  2. Despite hailing from a long line of smokers, I never got the habit. You may have to spend ten years in a Siberian labor camp, thought I, and tobacco will be really hard to get and that will be the single worst part of the experience. Best not to start. Eternal gratitude, Solzhenitsyn.

These were likely not among the goals the author had in mind when setting pen to paper, but good books, I contend, have a way of creating their own good in the world. This one is great for getting out of your own skin and seeing the world from another perspective. It’s also a terrific way to put a chill on a hot summer day.

Bobby Sands reprised it, to powerful effect, during the Blanket Rebellion at Long Kesh in the ’80s. He wrote his version on toilet paper (hey, he wasn’t using it) and stored it well out of the guards’ reach. His book is just brutal. I can’t recommend you read it yourself (just to avoid damage to your soul), but it would be a thoughtful gift for that Irish Republican or Ancient Hibernian in your life. Or someone British you really dislike.

3. Different Seasons


Tucked in this Stephen King collection of three excellent short stories (and one vile tale/literary virus that should be contained and used only in the event of alien invasion) is “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.”

As prison stories go, this one is a charmer, featuring an unjustly convicted man who uses his talents to improve the lives of everyone in the prison and manages some fairly astonishing feats. If you need a prison story that’s short (maybe you’re just waiting to plead guilty to that speeding charge) and has a happy ending, here’s your ticket.

Do not, under any circumstances, read “Apt Pupil.” Do not. Also, make sure your basement floor is properly paved and sealed.


4. Native Son


This might be the best time to read Richard Wright‘s masterpiece about crime and race. It is always encouraging to see gifted writers tackling difficult subjects. It is less encouraging to recognize that, with very few revisions, this story could take place today.

I read a host of reviews before posting this and the conflict there tells its own tale. Those who like the book tend to be literary types, social activist types, and students. Those who don’t? I can’t be sure, but they seem to be some angry, privileged people.

“This book would be OK if Wright didn’t have such an agenda.”
“Maybe good for understanding a time when black people were not treated the same as white people.”
“The school board needs to rethink what students should read.”

I can agree with that last comment, both on general principles and on the basis that rape and murder are not easy to read about. But when should our children find out about crime, or inequality, or addiction, or genocide? When is someone old enough to read Night? (NB: No one is ever old enough to read Night.)

I’ll absolve you if you choose to read the abridged version and by all means feel free to skip the author’s long intro if it doesn’t work for you. But give the 250 or so pages in the middle a try. Whatever your race or politics, you’ll learn something.

For those of you who have found this just too depressing, here’s a cheery note: Today is also the birthday of British comedian David Mitchell. If you don’t know him, allow me to make an introduction: He has written books, too (not those books, that’s another David Mitchell), about which more in a future installment.



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