Five Spring Reads

Friends,

Have you read any good books lately?

I love asking people that question because 1) it gives me good ideas on what to add onto my reading list, 2) it tells me a lot about the person I’m asking, and 3) it usually leads to an interesting conversation.

Here are a few of the books I’ve read this spring, if you’re looking for something new to read (listed in order of how much I liked them):

SCARY CLOSE by Donald Miller: This was such a good read! I forced myself to ration it out because each chapter was so challenging and thought-provoking. Donald Miller, (who is one of my favorite authors) talks about relationships, and the core reasons why they’re so difficult for us – why we’re afraid to be vulnerable, why we cling to identities we think are socially acceptable instead of just relating to others, and why we confuse impressiveness with love.

  • “The stuff it takes to be intimate is authenticity, vulnerability, and a belief that other people are about as good and bad as we are.”
  • “When the story of earth is told, all that will be remembered is the truth we exchanged. The vulnerable moments. The terrifying risk of love and the care we took to cultivate it. And all the rest, the distracting noises of insecurity and the flattery and the flashbulbs will flicker out like a turned-off television.”

THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON by Adam Johnson: This was such an interesting and unexpected novel. It follows the story of a North Korean orphan who travels through every imaginable layer of North Korean society. It’s dream-like, and epic, and gives you such a taste for the tragedy and absurdity of what life in North Korea must really be like. It’s like a literary North Korean Gone With the Wind. Also, the writing is beautiful. I read an interview with the author of the book, and he said that most of the events in the novel were based on things that had actually happened, which makes it even more fascinating. High recommendations. (P.S., it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction!)

  • “Over the Tsushima Basin, they could hear the powerful clicks, like punches to the chest, of sperm whales hunting below, and nearing the island of Dogo, granite spires rose sudden from the sea, white up top from bird guano and orange below from great gatherings of starfish. Jun Do stared up toward the island’s north promontory, volcanic black, limned in dwarf spruce. This was a world wrought for its own sake, without message or point, a landscape that would make no testimony for one great leader over another.”
  • “In Prison 33, little by little, you relinquished everything, starting with your tomorrows and all that might be. Next went your past, and suddenly it was inconceivable that your head had ever touched a pillow, that you’d once used a spoon or a toilet, that your mouth had once known flavors and your eyes had beheld colors beyond gray and brown and the shade of black that blood took on. Before you relinquished yourself—Ga had felt it starting, like the numb of cold limbs—you let go of all the others, each person you’d once known. “

THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS by M. L. Stedman : I’d heard a lot of people recommend this book, and it was a good read. It’s the story of a husband and wife who adopt a little girl who washes up in a boat to an island they’re living on, and then decide to pass her off as their own. It was full of scenes from places far from my everyday (lighthouse-manned islands off the coast of Australia), as well as moments that seemed timeless and familiar (descriptions of the relationship between a husband and wife, and of a mother watching her child). The story, with its fascinating moral dilemmas and tension really drew me in. Great read.

  • “Just like the mercury that made the light go around, Isabel was – mysterious. Able to cure and to poison; able to bear the whole weight of the light but capable of fracturing into a thousand uncatchable particles, running off in all directions, escaping from itself.”
  • “…he had become accustomed to her gurgles, to her silent, sleeping presence in her cot, which seemed to waft through the cottage like the smell of baking or flowers.”

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr: I’ve seen this book in so many people’s reserve queue at the library. It’s been very popular. It won the Pulitzer for fiction. But, while it was of course good, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did the others. I just didn’t get as into it. I loved the blind narrator (who used smell and sound and touch to describe things – so interesting!), and the fact that the two main characters, who were into such unusual things, managed to lend me an appreciation for things like mollusks, and engineering. Have you read it? Did you like it?

  • “Every morning he ties his shoes, packs newspaper inside his coat as insulation against the cold, and begins interrogating the world. He captures snowflakes, tadpoles, hibernating frogs; he coaxes bread from bakers with none to sell; he regularly appears in the kitchen with fresh milk for the babies. He makes things too: paper boxes, crude biplanes, toy boats with working rudders.”
  • “To men like that, time was a surfeit, a barrel they watched slowly drain. When really, he thinks, it’s a glowing puddle you carry in your hands; you should spend all your energy protecting it. Fighting for it. Working so hard not to spill one single drop.”

REDEPLOYMENT by Phil Kay: I loved the sense of immediacy this book gave me. It’s a collection of short stories by a former marine that takes readers to the front lines of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As with most good short story writers, I found myself amazed that he could so accurately describe the feelings, and experiences of such varied people. I enjoyed some stories better than others, which is why I didn’t rate this book as high as the others, but it was still really good, and definitely worth the read.

  • “The weird thing with being a veteran, at least for me, is that you do feel better than most people. You risked your life for something bigger than yourself. How many people can say that? You chose to serve. Maybe you didn’t understand American foreign policy or why we were at war. Maybe you never will. But it doesn’t matter. You held up your hand and said, “I’m willing to die for these worthless civilians.” At the same time, though, you feel somehow less. What happened, what I was a part of, maybe it was the right thing. We were fighting very bad people. But it was an ugly thing.”
  • “The problem is, your thoughts don’t come out in any kind of straight order. You don’t think, Oh, I did A, then B, then C, then D. You try to think about home, then you’re in the torture house. You see the body parts in the locker and the retarded guy in the cage. He squawked like a chicken. His head was shrunk down to a coconut. It takes you a while to remember Doc saying they’d shot mercury into his skull, and then it still doesn’t make any sense. You see the things you saw the times you nearly died. The broken television and the hajji corpse. Eicholtz covered in blood. The lieutenant on the radio. You see the little girl, the photographs Curtis found in a desk. First had a beautiful Iraqi kid, maybe seven or eight years old, in bare feet and a pretty white dress like it’s First Communion. Next she’s in a red dress, high heels, heavy makeup. Next photo, same dress, but her face is smudged and she’s holding a gun to her head.”

What about you? Any good book recommendations?

P.S. I keep track of my reading lists on Pinterest and on my ebook wishlist at my library’s website.

PPS. book photo by James Tarbotton found here

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Russia’s Potted Plants

photo by Will Webster

Have you ever noticed the potted plants in Russian homes, offices, and public buildings? There’s something particularly Eastern European about the way they’re placed in window sills and corners like a band-aid against the winter.

A friend and former colleague of mine, Will Webster, has put together a fantastic photo series of potted plant portraits. It’s great, and hilarious. All these plants seem to have their own personalities, like silent watchers, bearing witnesses to the rush and clamor around them.

photo by Will Webster
photo by Will Webster
photo by Will Webster
photo by Will Webster
photo by Will Webster

So friendly, funny, and weird! Great stuff. You can check out more of the photos here.

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End-of-April Thursday

Hello friends,

It has been much too long. My posts are becoming more and more sporadic. In a big life transition I’m finding it hard to narrow my focus. We no longer live in Moscow, so the main themes of this blog are no longer as relevant to me, and blog post ideas are no longer coming as quickly and naturally as they did. I’m not sure if this space is going to transition into something else, or fade out entirely. Right now most of the topics I’m focused on have to do with Minnesota, transition, literature, journalism, reverse culture shock, job hunting, immigration, suburbia, etc. I’m hoping I’ll have some more answers and more focus soon, but at this point I’m just not able to make a decision.

And until things get figured out, boy do I have a lot of fantastic links to share with you!

Also, I just want to remind you that it’s the last day of April. Spring (and soon summer!) are here, people! I hope your weekend is full of green…!

Last but not least, I want to get a bike. But the choices are overwhelming! Does anyone have a good recommendation of what sort of bike to get?? Also, where to get it?

 

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Quote of the Week

“To love someone is to see him as God intended him.” – Dostoevsky

An acquaintance of ours has this as their email sign-off. Good quote isn’t it? How transformed my daily life would be if I saw people this way…

P.S. do you have an email sign-off?

PPS. the prodovets photo was found here along with a fantastic collection of photos from 1965 Leningrad that I can almost promise will make you nostalgic…

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Happy Friday!

“Winter Doesn’t Give Up” by Sergei Gavrilov

Good morning, friends.

Is anyone else out there glad it’s Friday? Economist husband had his first week of work this week, and I’m excited to get him back for the weekend. Also, it’s almost Easter! Muscovites, look out for pussy willow branches showing up outside your metro stop. Here in MN, we are headed outside this morning to find some in the woods near our house (it’s like подмосковье here)

For now, a few links for your weekend:

P.S. the above “Winter Doesn’t Give Up” (taken this week!) photo is by Sergei Gavrilov, a talented photographer and acquaintance of mine from Moscow. You can see more of his work here.

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Book Review: Midnight in Siberia

Friends,

Have you read David Greene’s “Midnight in Siberia”? It came out last year, but I only got around to reading it this month.

David Greene was NPR’s bureau chief in Moscow for a few years (he now hosts Morning Edition). I actually met him and his wife Rose a few times when we were there. This book follows Greene and his colleague, Sergei, on a journey along the Trans Siberian Railroad. It’s full of anecdotes, meetings with Russians of every age and background, and endless cups of tea.

Greene says just about everything I would like to say about modern day Russia. He obsesses over the question of why Russians don’t seem to want democracy in their country. Here are a few quotes I really liked:

“The trip has been grueling, frustrating, exciting, with unexpected twists at every step…often I’m in the dark because I don’t know the language. …what a metaphor for how Russians approach their lives. In a way I feel that’s how the Russian government keeps citizens in the dark – laws are never clear, courts are unreliable, punishments are arbitrary – it’s like living in a place where the people in charge are speaking a language you never understand. And consider what that does to any impulse to speak up.” -David Greene

“For seventy years this was a country where the government could come to your rescue. But rescue from what? Maybe that was Stalin’s magic. He created the feeling of chaos, fear, and confusion so people – from Central Asia to the streets of Moscow – needed him, needed government. They had no other choice.” -David Greene

“I just stood there, gazing out into this vast, white Siberian landscape that was lit by the moon at midnight. I felt melancholy, this feeling that Russians are living in some sad darkness, unable to see the future that could await them if they only fought harder. And yet something about the poetry of the place, the pain people have been through, the laughter and strength and kindness from so many I’ve met, all made me want to smile.” -David Greene

“This is a country where, for years, people were taught that if they had a mundane problem – the electricity or water service went out – they could call the local Soviet authorities and the problem might be promptly fixed. But if they saw something unjust or awful, the wisest choice could be to simply ignore it or move past it. People were not taught to raise questions – because doing so could be dangerous, and really there was nowhere to turn for answers anyway. A foundation of Communist ideology and Soviet power was keeping people convinced that they had to accept their fate as it was – and that, in the end, this would be better for everyone. But this philosophy remains in the DNA, passed from one generation to the next…” – David Greene

Will you read it? I can definitely recommend it.

What are you reading at the moment? Any recommendations for the rest of us?

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100 Russians

photo by Keen Heick-Abildhauge

I came across a photo project the other day, and thought you’d like to see it. Keen Heick-Abildhauge, a Dutch photographer who has lived in Russia took pictures of people aged 1-100, and arranged them in chronological order. When he took the pictures he asked people what they thought about and dreamed about.

The project turned out to be a powerful one. You can check it out here.

Age 1:

photo by Keen Heick-Abildhauge

Age 50:

photo by Keen Heick-Abildhauge

Age 100:

Keen Heick-Abildhauge
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Have a Cool March Weekend

“Young Garden”, 20″ x 16″, oil, by ANASTASIA DUKHANINA. by Slusser Gallery

Wait a second, is it Friday already?

Also, is it not officially SPRING already!?

Moscow, Facebook tells me, is dripping wet and cool. I remember those long, gray spring days – revolted by the garbage, carcasses, cigarette butts under rotten snow. The calendar told us it was spring, but we kept getting slapped in the face by surprise snow storms. After a few years I realized it was no use hoping for real spring until the first week of May!

Hang in there – sun and green will be here before you know it!

A few links to brighten up your early spring weekend:

P.S. Anna Dukhanina painting found here – looks like March, doesn’t it?

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Things I will miss about my job

High-rise building on Kotelnicheskaya Quay Moscow. View with High-rise building on Kotelnicheskaya Embankment (1988) by IGOR PALMIN

Friends, it’s been almost a year since I’ve been in a Moscow newsroom. It was my home for almost five years, and I miss it a lot! Miss Anna Grace is getting older, and we are beginning to settle down here in MN, so I’m beginning to look for a journalism job here in the U.S.

There are some things, however, that I will forever miss about my news agency job in Moscow:

I’ll miss:

  • THE PEOPLE – cranky cameramen, sweet-toothed photographers, scatter-brained fellow producers, and all the brilliant minds, hard workers, and even big egos at the office.
  • THE COLORFUL WILD EAST NEWS: weasels in the Ukrainian sewer system, elks in Moscow, dog-sled racing in Siberia, Kyrgyz gold mines, Moscow hipsters, Russian road crashes, and asteroids falling from the sky.
  • THE GIGANTIC CIS PERSONALITIES: Putin, Lukashenko, Onischenko, Zhirinovsky, Lavrov, Astakhov, Kadyrov. These people make news like nowhere else in the world.
  • ACCREDITED BACKSTAGE PASSES: getting to go to all these interesting shoots with a license to ask questions, and stick my nose in places it wouldn’t normally be welcomed – backstage at the Bolshoi, in Russian courtrooms, outrunning riot police in the middle of a street protest; interviewing performance artists in dark alleys at 2am; staking out the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; sitting on on human rights pressers.

It’s honestly really hard to move on – I won’t ever get to sit in on a news desk like this in the U.S. But that’s the hard homesick lie of moving to a new country, isn’t it? That your new life will never be as interesting as your old life.

It is, in the end, a lie, however. So, here’s to the NEW interesting life, and whatever work and people it brings.

What about you, friends? Is there anything you’re having a hard time saying goodbye to? Are there any ways you’re afraid of what the future will bring?

P.S. Igor Palmin photo found here.

 

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How to Talk to Anyone pt. 1 (advice from Humans of New York)

Barak Obama as photographed by HONY’s Brandon Stanton

You know, one of the hard things about Minnesota, and the U.S.A. is the small talk. Have you noticed? Beginner conversations are all about the weather, or the clothes you’re wearing, or what you do at your job. Does anyone actually enjoy small talk? Granted, it can be socially disarming, but no one wants to stay in a conversation about the weather for very long. No one goes home at night and thinks about the great conversation they had about the weather that day.

I’m as guilty as the next person of wallowing in small talk. Small talk can be a great way to start a conversation, but more often than not, I use it as an excuse; a wall; a stalling technique to keep things from getting too deep and personal.

But how do you move beyond small talk? How do you get to the good stuff? The conversations that help you really get to know someone? The conversations that help you connect? This is something I wonder; information that could be really useful to someone like me who’s just moved to a new city.

Brandon Stanton, the guy who runs the Humans of New York blog/feed is an EXPERT at moving into deep conversations.

Here is his advice for getting past the small talk into a meaningful conversation. This is the technique he uses when interviewing people:

1) Approach someone from the front (i.e. don’t startle them from behind), and get down at their level. Don’t creep them out, and don’t lord it over them. Also, try to be relaxed/comfortable in your own skin – this will subconsciously help the person you’re talking to be relaxed.

2) Ask them an intro question (he asks if he can take someone’s picture, but you could just as legitimately ask about the weather, or about where you can get a glass of water)

3) Then follow up with a broad question. Some of the questions Stanton asks include:

  • What is your greatest struggle right now?
  • What has been your saddest moment?
  • What has been your happiest moment?
  • Who has had the most influence on your life?
  • When was the moment you felt most afraid? Most let-down? (all these emotion questions are usually attached to pivotal moments in our lives, and come attached to great stories)
  • Give one piece of advice

4) The first answer people give is usually a broad, non-specific answer (There’s safety in answering generally – you don’t really reveal anything.). Use this answer as a jumping-off point to go into a deeper conversation. For example, if the advice people give is to “be optimistic”, or “take risks”, ask them about a time they weren’t optimistic, or a time they didn’t take risks that they really regretted.

5) Enjoy the conversation you’ve started, and the new person you’re getting to know! Have the guts to answer questions yourself, and keep the conversation going…

Stanton uses this interview technique to great success. He recently interviewed President Barak Obama. Here are the answers he got:

If you don’t follow Humans of New York, I highly recommend it!

Here is Stanton explaining his technique to a lecture hall full of people:

P.S. all photos from this post are by Brandon Stanton.

 

 

 

 

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Women’s Day

photo from “Motherland” by Ivan Mikhailov

Happy (belated) March 8, my female friends. In celebration, I have a round-up of links for you:

P.S. above Ivan Mikhailov photo found here

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New Film: The Russian Woodpecker

Friends,

Have you seen the trailer yet for The Russian Woodpecker? It’s a documentary about a radar at Chernobyl that some people think is responsible for the meltdown. It looks weird, and good at the same time. A friend of mine recently interviewed the producer, and she said they were interesting.

The Guardian said it was “a rollicking ride of masterly narrative construction unlike any other documentary in Sundance.”

Will you see it? There are screenings in the U.S. (in the Midwest!), UK, Australia and Ukraine.

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The Loveliest of Weekends to You

“Orekhovo” by Pavel Milyakov

Friends,

Let’s not go into specifics of how many times I’ve ventured outside in the last three months. It’s a bit embarrassing. Minnesota has been SO COLD lately! We are aching for spring. Thankfully, we were able to take advantage of a short thaw last weekend to get out and rid ourselves of a bad case of cabin fever.

Spring! We miss you! Come soon!

Until then, a few links:

P.S. Pavel Milyakov art found here.

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Quote of the Week

photo by Ilya Varlamov

Friends,

Did you realize that since Russia invaded Ukraine the ruble has plummeted, the Russian economy has tanked, BUT Putin’s popularity is higher than ever?

People are always surprised to hear this. I myself am always surprised to hear this. How can this be? A recent article by Gary Shteyngart explains the phenomenon well: it’s Russian TV!

“What a powerful weapon Putin’s television is. How skillfully it combines nostalgia, malice, paranoia and lazy humor; how swiftly it both dulls the senses and raises your ire.” -Gary Shteyngart

“This is geopolitics as middle-school homeroom. Like an ambitious tween who longs for social success, Russia wants to be both noticed and respected. The invasion of Crimea and the bloody conflict in Eastern Ukraine got the world’s attention, but now the cool nations are no longer inviting Russia for unsupervised sleepovers, and the only kids still leaving notes on Russia’s locker are Kim Jon-un and Raul Castro.” -Gary Shteyngart

I’ve always talked about Russia’s current leadership being similar to a bunch of pubescent teenage boys with Napoleon complexes. Gary Shteyngart says it with a bit more eloquence. Fantastic article, and well worth a read!

P.S. metro photo, which so perfectly encapsulates the Russian mentality by Ilya Varlamov found here.

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Donetsk Artist

by Angela Dzherikh

Friends,

Have you been following the news out of Ukraine? It can all turn into a wash of distant information, don’t you think? Politics, prejudice, and stories like a geopolitical football game you’d watch on TV, or some unrealistic giant game of Risk you hear about on the radio. It’s hard to get a grasp on the truth of what life there really tastes like.

A friend of mine who’s a journalist working in Ukraine recently posted a link to the work of a Donetsk artist. The art is captivating – such a realistic glimpse of the post-Soviet reality in the CIS. Looking at the paintings made me feel instantly transported to the gritty neighborhoods, grocery stores, and courtyards of Donetsk. These look like scenes I can actually remember from the bus or electrichka, or walking to get my shoes repaired in a Moscow suburb.

Have a look:

by Angela Dzherikh
by Angela Dzherikh
by Angela Dzherikh
by Angela Dzherikh

Such strange and lovely post-Soviet moments, don’t you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Do you have any favorite artists from the CIS?

P.S. please check out more of Angela Dzherikh’s work here and here.

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