Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Top Ten Books I've Read So Far in 2015

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted over at The Broke and the Bookish.

This week's topic is Top Ten Books I've Read So Far in 2015. Here are my favorites, with links to the reviews. They are in no particular order.

1. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
2. The Likeness by Tana French
3. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
4. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
5. The Martian by Andy Weir
6. The Bees by Laline Paull
7. Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
8. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
9. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
10. The Selection by Kiera Cass (I really mean the whole series - is that cheating?)

What are your favorites so far this year?

Friday, June 26, 2015

Russia Vacation

Hi everyone, I'm back! I just spent a week and a half on vacation in Russia. Would you like to see some pictures? If not, avert your eyes!

The first half of our vacation was in St. Petersburg, where all the buildings are shaped like this.

Did you know that there are canals in St. Petersburg? They're very nice, and break up the monotony of all the buildings being the same height and shape. Seriously, walking down the street feels like you're in a tunnel. At least the parts of the city where we went.

Our first stop was the Museum of Soviet Arcade Games. Luckily, it's not a traditional museum, so we were able to actually play the games.

Then we went to the Church of our Savior on the Spilled Blood, which was built on the spot where Alexander II was murdered in 1881.

We looked at art at the Russian Museum and the Hermitage. The Hermitage is overwhelmingly huge, so the only building we visited was the opulent Winter Palace. Here is one of my favorite rooms.

Most of our activities were in one area, within walking distance to where we were staying. But one day we did take a train to the Peter and Paul Fortress. The last Romanovs, who were killed in 1918, were buried there after their bodies were found in 1991. This room of the cathedral is dedicated to them.

And here's a nice picture of Eric and I on the wall of the fortress with the Neva River behind us.

We also attended a ballet at the Mariinsky Theater, even though neither of us really like ballet. It was nice though. And of course we ate a lot.

I have discovered one of the most delicious foods in the world, which is called khachapuri. It is bread filled with cheese and there's a well in the center in which they put a raw egg and then you mix up the eggy cheesy goodness and break off bits of bread to dip in it. It is heavenly.

Of course there were also lots of pickled things.

Seriously, Russian food is so underrated. It's full of potatoes and mushrooms and pickles and cheese and eggs and dill. So much tastiness!

This trip was deliberately planned in late June to coincide with White Nights, when the city never gets completely dark. The sun set at around 10:30pm and rose again at 3:30. It didn't go far enough below the horizon to get completely dark and it was a really interesting experience to walk home from dinner at 9pm and see the sun shining. Luckily our hotel room had heavy drapes and I had an eye mask from the plane, so I was able to get some sleep.

We took a train to Moscow and it was neat to see all the small towns and villages we passed through on the way. Our Moscow hotel was super swanky and only about a block from Red Square.

The first place we went was to the iconic St. Basil's Cathedral. So many onion domes! There are actually more onion domes in Moscow than I ever expected.

The day we planned to visit the Kremlin, all of Red Square was unexpectedly closed. Because it was a Monday, many other sites on my list were closed anyway. So we went to Gorky Park, where there's a really cool collection of sculptures. Many were from the Soviet era and were taken down in 1991. Here are two Lenins.

We visited the Kremlin the next day, and did a tour of the Armoury. You're not allowed to take photos in the Armoury, but it's really fascinating. They have tons of stuff that belonged to the tsars, like fancy gold and silver relics, thrones, armor, carriages, and coronation gowns. I thought it might be boring, but it was actually kind of amazing to see these pieces of history. The free audio tour walked us through some of the things and provided background on what we were looking it, but there was way more than I could really look closely at in one day.

There are also several cathedrals in the Kremlin, with onion domes.

Our hotel offered a Russian Tea Ceremony, which we decided to try.

It was an elaborate setup of delicious tea served in fancy glasses, sandwiches, savory pies, blini, and little cookies and tarts. It was all served by Marina, pictured above, who was a lovely hostess. She teaches English and was very happy to chat with some Americans.

We visited Lenin, who you can see in his tomb (he was embalmed and put on display) after standing in line for a long time. It was weird and surreal and we were not allowed to take pictures. But I can show you the nearby grave of Joseph Stalin.

I also couldn't take photos inside of Tolstoy's house, which was our next stop. But here's a picture of us sitting in his back yard. It was so neat to see where Tolstoy and his family actually lived, especially so soon after finally reading War and Peace.

The last activity on our trip was visiting the Tretyakov gallery, which was filled with many really wonderful paintings that I now want to learn more about. Here's a photo of the front of the museum with a statue of a tall, stern man. (Russia seems to be filled with statues of tall stern men, and also men on horses.)

I liked both cities, but really wish I had more time in Moscow. I seriously think I could live there. It's a very classy city with beautiful architecture, a ton of things to see and do, and the most well-dressed people I've ever seen. It was a pleasure just watching people walk to work in the mornings, they were all so well put-together. Americans look like slobs now! On the other hand, I'm glad I don't have the pressure of having to dress so nicely every day. That would be exhausting and stressful.

Enough people spoke English there that I didn't really need to use my extremely rusty Russian, which was lucky because my pronunciation is horrible and it's been so long that I can't ever remember basic things like the verbs of motion (which I never really grasped anyhow.) But it was incredibly useful to be able to read signs, so if you go I highly suggest at least learning the alphabet so you can match up street signs to what is printed on your maps in English.

All in all, it was a fantastic trip! Russia has such a fascinating history, not to mention great art and literature, and it was such a great opportunity to actually go there. We saw just a small part of this huge country, and I'd love to see more of it someday. If you're looking for a someplace a little different for a vacation, I highly recommend it!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Gerald's Game

Gerald's Game by Stephen King (1992)

Jessie Burlingame and her husband Gerald slip off to their cabin in the woods for some sexytimes, but when Gerald is accidentally killed Jessie is left hand-cuffed to the bed with no way to escape and only her own thoughts to keep her company. Or, maybe not.

As Jessie lies uncomfortably on the bed for hours, her mind begins to drift back to one summer when something so terrible happened she hasn't let herself even think of it until now. A small chorus of voices in her head argue with each other and vie for her attention as she comes to grips with her both her past and her present.

Gerald's Game is not a book of action so much as one of internal struggle and growth. Most of the book takes place in Jessie's head as she thinks about her husband, her father, her therapist, and her old friend Ruth. Ruth and Nora, the therapist, are a couple of the voices she hears in her head, along with an alter-ego she thinks of as Goodwife Burlingame.

But that's not to say that the novel is all about thinking. Things do happen, and they are creepy and sometimes downright gruesome. Jessie makes attempts to relieve her worsening thirst and, of course, to free herself from the handcuffs. She also has visitors, but the less said about those the better. You'll just have to read it yourself.

I've had a tough time reading lately, possibly because of so many distractions in my life right now, which is why I turned to Stephen King. This is one of his books I missed because it came out soon after I went to college and discovered that there are, in fact, other authors out there. I didn't read anything of his for quite a while and now I'm trying to catch up. I think it was a good book to pick at the time and I'm glad I read it, but it's definitely not one of my favorites. I really appreciated the story of Jessie coming to grips with her childhood trauma, and trying to save her own life, but I do like a little more action in a story.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Sporadic posting ahead!

Just a quick note to let you know that posts will be less frequent in the next few weeks because of lots of travel. I'll still be reading of course, and will post when I can, but it's not my highest priority this month. I'll be back to my regular schedule in July!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The New Jim Crow

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (2009)

Examining the criminal justice system and the war on drugs, Michelle Alexander makes a case that just as Jim Crow laws replaced slavery as a tool for racial oppression, so our current system of laws and imprisonment replaces Jim Crow. Although our new system doesn't technically focus on people of color, it becomes quite clear through Alexander's argument that this part of the population is targeted; it may be more subtle, but the effects are just as damaging.

She begins with some history; the rise and fall of slavery in America, followed by the Jim Crow laws. When they were abolished, the focus turned from explicitly targeting people based on race to focusing on crime. The second chapter focuses on the war on drugs and mass incarceration. In the 1980s when Reagan declared the war on drugs, it created a system in which police forces are financially rewarded for focusing on drugs arrests, and the accused are inadequately represented. Chapter three explores the role of race in the justice system, and describes why those imprisoned are disproportionately people of color. (Hint: it's not because they are more likely to commit crimes.) The focus of chapter four is on what happens after prison, the stigma faced by ex-cons and the ways in which they can be discriminated against which basically ensures they cannot ever return to mainstream society. Chapter five compares and contrasts this new system with Jim Crow. In the final chapter, Alexander focuses on the future, arguing that a major cultural shift is necessary to end this new system of discrimination.

Although it was published several years ago, this book is incredibly timely. Race and criminal justice have both been in the forefront recently, and The New Jim Crow has become very popular, with good reason. I can't overemphasize how compelling Alexander's argument is, how neatly it all comes together. It's so seamless that it appears obvious, like you'd be a fool to not see it. Dense with facts and data, Alexander cites her many sources, making it not only authoritative, but convenient to find sources for further reading. However, this doesn't make it unreadable - I found it to be fascinating reading, though I had to stop frequently just to absorb it all. Plus, one needs time to let one's rage deflate a bit before going on.

I know there are many people who are skeptical about institutional racism, and I like to think it's because of a certain optimism about how America works. Examples are often thrown out to illustrate how far we've come (Hey, we have a black President!) But even though I'm white, I am also a woman, and I know from experience that despite the many inroads individual women have made, overall we still lag behind men in key areas, like salaries. I know that sometimes we are treated differently from men, so yeah, I believe we also treat people of color differently from white people. Maybe it's not official or intentional, but it still counts when you're on the receiving end.

As I was writing this I kept wanting to add some of the specific injustices noted in the book, like statistics about how many people in the US are in prison for drug crimes and the particular ways in which police forces profit from drug raids, but it all kept leading to other related facts and data and became huge and unwieldy. Even before reading this book, I was upset about some of these issues, and about how meaningless it is to imprison people for victimless crimes and how having a prison record can destroy a person's life. Reading such a thorough examination full of facts and data just added more fuel to that fire.

So I won't recount the specifics, but I will say that although this isn't the easiest book to read it's a very important one. I may add it to my (new right now!) list of books that I think everyone should read (the other book on that tiny list is Far From the Tree.) I only hope that the attention given to these issues recently will cause the tides to turn and result in the cultural shift that Michelle Alexander says is needed for real change.