Saturday, January 12, 2008


Can it be that Russia has just discovered peer-to-peer networking? How else to explain the sudden emergence and the overwhelming popularity of the Russian Classmates site ( Why only now?

I mean, here we’ve been enjoying things like Friendster and Myspace for years. Add to that, Linked In (for professional connections), Good Reads (for book lovers), and of course, the Facebook (which, so far, I’ve been able to avoid).

But Russian Classmates is different. It’s really a craze. There’s a joke going around that involves a lonesome Putin walking Kremlin corridors while his underlings are lost in front of their computers, getting sentimental, lusting after former neighbors and lovers, discovering the children they didn’t think they had. (The punch line? The site is an FSB project designed to get Russian citizens to reveal their information and connections.) (It's a cute joke. If you know Russian, you can read the whole thing here. Thank you, Marik!)

In reality, though, the site doesn’t have all that much information. No short statements about self. No lists of favorite bands. Not even marital statuses. What it does have is pictures, which people post liberally and are encouraged to rate (more on that later). Actually you can get quite a bit from the pictures: children, spouses, and of course, the exotic vacation destinations.

I discovered the site about a month ago, and I’ll be the first one to admit it’s incredibly addictive. Especially the first couple of days, when you're digging through profiles and graduation years. And once you are found by your class, it's glorious, like you're a long-lost member of a tribe. By now, my list of friends includes classmates from the 2 schools I attended, several friends I’d lost track of, people I haven’t seen since 3rd grade. Childhood friends. Family friends. Relatives. My sister. My parents. I’ve received messages from my former teachers as well as from people I don’t really know. And many messages from my mother’s former students! So many, in fact, that I’ve made her join the site as well.

The site has its challenges. For example, it doesn’t work too well on my browser; the interface is a bit clunky; I often have to retype my messages; and it took me a while to figure out how to accept invitations. The biggest challenge, though, is finding time to answer. And typing in translit. (I need to find keyboard stickers that have both Russian and English alphabet.)

In Russia, the popularity of the site has led to a wave of class reunions. For immigrants like myself – and it’s really interesting to see how many people are living abroad these days – it’s a chance to dip into some latent nostalgia and reconnect (if only virtually) with the people we might otherwise never see again. It’s not like we can bump into them at a bus stop. (Though who takes buses these days?)

The only feature I don’t really understand is the rating of the pictures. I mean, why? It’s not a fucking beauty contest. The point is to connect with old friends, and are your friends really going to lowball you? I don’t think so. I’ve been pretty much ignoring the rating feature. Come on, everybody’s looking gorgeous and happy, and they wouldn’t be posting the pictures otherwise.

Still, the other day, some unknown to me entity (residing in San Francisco, apparently, and possessing no pictures or friends of her own), found my profile and gave me low ratings. Umm, okay. Fortunately the site has another feature that allows you to blacklist the undesirables and ban them from contacting you again. Good thing, too. The site is for friends, not assholes.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Happy New Year!

The holidays are over and it’s a good thing.

New Year’s Eve used to be my favorite holiday. It still is, except these days I can’t be bothered to do anything about it. It’s hard to believe I used to stay up until at least 4 in the morning (a matter of pride!), make holiday food, dress up… There were cozy holiday parties at friends’ houses, one big drunken New Year bash that required buying tickets in advance (one glass of champagne included), a couple of Pittsburgh fiascos, the time my sister and I stayed home and got drunk, and another time she traveled to celebrate with me in Boston and we fought over a CD (which one was it?). There was the night spent playing “Wise and Otherwise,” and there was one badly planned New Year when a few of us (you know who you are) ended up in a hotel bar on Memorial Drive drinking “chocolate” martinis -- chocolate being a singe Hershey Kiss dropped in a glass. Even last year was eventful, as Movie Dictator and I ventured out to celebrate First Night.

I must be getting seriously old, because this year it was a challenge to just stay up until midnight. Initially, I’d made some plans to go out, but you know how it is: it was cold outside, and dark. I was playing a computer game. Movie Dictator was making a pizza. By the time I made up my mind not to go, it was too late to start a major movie, so we just puttered around through the rest of the night and watched an episode of “The Weakest Link” (British version). By the time that was over, the ball had just dropped in Times Square. So we said “Happy New Year” to each other, and then a few minutes later my parents called to laugh at us for being such wimps. Then we went to sleep. Whatever.

But maybe the best celebration are the ones done at home anyway? Like when I was a kid, and we had our tree and presents and holiday food and a new circus calendar in the hallway (my great aunt had connections), and there was always something good on TV (or was there? we always complained), and the phone started ringing right after midnight and kept ringing for the next couple of hours -- because in Moscow no one seemed to sleep on New Year’s Eve.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Back Home, November in Review

It’s been a while. Naturally, I blame my prolonged absence on the book tour, which come to think of it, doesn’t explain the month of December, which got consumed by the end-of-the-semester business, rest, sleep shoveling snow, doing dishes, paying bills… You get the idea.

But now I’m back and I fully intend to post regularly, about twice a week. Let’s call it my new New Year’s resolution.

My last post was about Pittsburgh and Syracuse. What came next? you might wonder. Or maybe not, but I’ll tell you anyway.

Next came Chicago and a reading at the lovely Myopic Books in Wicker Park. Then Milwaukee, not as happening as Wicker Park, but then again, I was staying in a very stylish hotel in the downtown area (thank you, Norton!), and all downtowns tend to get desolate at night. Then 2.5 days in Houston – the enormous spread-out Houston with its famous traffic jams that can happen at any time, its gorgeous (if not very sturdy) houses, its endless shopping plazas. (A friend was telling me about his family’s experience during a post-Katrina hurricane, and I was starting to see how easy it would be to get trapped in that place.) Finally back to Midwest. Hello and good bye, St. Paul/Minneapolis. I would’ve loved to see more, but by the time I got there, it was already getting dark, and the next morning I flew back to Connecticut.

The following week, Movie Dictator and I flew to LA to do the final – West Coast – leg of the tour. I’ll try to summarize the trip into easily digestible bullet points:

- Flying with a smoker (i.e. Movie Dictator) has its challenges, and we came close to missing our flight from Hartford.

- US Airways sucks. And the food they sell sucks even more.

- Driving in LA, at first, wasn’t as bad as we’ve been told. Armed with our mighty GPS device and secure in our rental car, we did just fine on the first night.

- Then it got worse. I kept missing exits and turns because they would pop up so abruptly. And changing lanes during rush hour… forget it!

- Did you know that LA was terribly polluted? Oh, you did…
(See if you can spot the HOLLYWOOD sign in the distance.)

- LA was one of the places Movie Dictator was ready to fall in love with -- the home of movie geeks and weirdos like himself. What we saw instead was a desperate place, spread out, congested, and compared to New York, kind of empty.

- On the other hand, Santa Monica was rather nice.

- Malibu was endless and ultimately not very interesting.

- Once it gets dark, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re driving on Rt. 1 or 101. You won’t see much either way.

- Avoid Motel 6 at all costs. Even if… no, especially if the lobby looks like a Starbucks with a flat-screen TV.

- Driving on the Golden Gate Bridge is great – unless there’s a fog, in which case you won’t see a thing.

- After San Francisco, switch to Rt. 1 and you’ll eventually arrive at the setting of Hitchcock’s The Birds.

- The coast is very pretty. But you might eventually get motion sick from the very steep serpentine turns. Also, you can’t go very fast.

- Vineyards. So many vineyards.

- And then…redwood forests! Fantastic, surreal, enormous, not to be missed. They make it all worthwhile.

- Redwood forests in the dark. In the mist. On a two-lane road. Fun for the passenger, terrifying for the driver.

- Welcome to Oregon. The coast is even more amazing than in California, harsher, more untamed. People, too, look more ragged. Also, it’s gotten colder.

- More Oregon. Oregon. Oregon. Then Washington. It takes a long time to get to Seattle.

- Even longer if where you’re going not to Seattle proper, but toward Redmond area.

- Even longer if your GPS gets confused.

- Even longer if it starts raining.

- When you finally arrive you might temporarily become hysterical.

- You’d like to sleep for 2 days straight. But you can’t, because next morning you have 2 interviews and then in the evening, a reading. You will briefly fall asleep at the cafĂ© in Barnes & Noble.

There’s a lot more, of course: Seattle, Vancouver, San Francisco. But to tell the truth, just writing about the 3-day drive from LA to Seattle made me tired. Would I do it again? I don’t know. Am I glad that we did? You bet. I now understand people who take over two weeks to do this trip – so many possible detours, so many cool places to stop at. I especially wish we had more time for those wonderful redwood forests.

All right, back in a few days with something more up-to-date and relevant.

It’s good to be back.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Pittsburgh and Syracuse

This blog has been much neglected, due to all the travel lately. The account of my recent trip to Pittsburgh, though, has just been posted on Debutante Ball. (Plus, some thoughts on truth, fiction, and cell phones.)

I’m getting more and more acquainted with our local Hartford airport. But the latest trip was to Syracuse and thankfully, didn’t require flying. The drive took 4.5 hours – I was hoping for less, but nope, it’s almost as long as it was from Boston to Syracuse. I’ve found a long time ago that the best way to deal with long car trips is by listening to books on tapes. This time, I started with The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, read by John Cleese, which was fabulous, but a bit hard to follow while driving. So I switched to The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, gruesome but thoroughly captivating, and that got me to Syracuse.

As I was crossing Erie Boulevard, grey and desolate and full of garish car-dealership signs, I suddenly felt as if I’d never left. It was all too familiar. I mean, it was good to be back, but also a little sad. My teachers were still there and also a couple of my friends, but the overall MFA community was different now, full of new people, and I wondered what it was like to be them. I had these moments of nostalgia all through the evening, though I also remembered the peculiar Syracuse loneliness: living within the structure of classes, readings, receptions, parties, everything nearby, always somewhere to go – and yet, and yet…

On the other hand, Syracuse now has a small independent bookstore on Westcott Street. With a coffee shop and an extra “study” room. Very cozy. I only wish it was there back when I was at Syracuse. I’m also happy to report that the Empire Brewery is back in business – it closed sometime during my 3rd year – and it looks exactly the same and probably has the same menu as before. We went there after the reading. The following morning I drove home, and the book-on-tape this time was One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Thank you to Movie Dictator for the stellar books-on-tape selection!

Sunday, October 14, 2007


Madison airport doesn’t have free wireless. Nor does Detroit airport, which is huge and full of restaurants and shops, a high-speed train that takes you from gate to gate, and at lest one concourse with the walls that change colors – moody violets to flashy reds to ocean greens -- all of it set to music.

Wireless at Hartford airport is free. Also free is Staten Island Ferry in New York. Free, free, free… You can see the Statue of Liberty and everything. You can buy some excellent books on the streets of Fort Green, $1 for a paperback. But that was a whole different trip.

This trip was to Madison, and Madison airport charges $6.99 a day for its wireless, which is surprising – because everything else about Madison is inexpensive and easy. Hotels dispatch free shuttles to pick you up from the airport, serve free (hot) breakfasts in the morning, and free wine at night. The airport parking – should you ever need it – is 50 cents an hour. The drinks are generous. And the streets are full of people.

It was lovely and strange to walk the streets of Madison again. Lovely because it was just as I remembered it. Strange because I wasn’t a part of its life anymore. I went to the Farmers’ Market – the biggest in the country! It was late and many vendors have already left (or were about to), but the selection was still amazing. I found my favorite cheese stand – the one under the big red tent – and splurged on my favorite cheddars (horseradish and kalamata olive) . (Which reminds me, I must unpack my suitcase and see how well the cheddars have survived.)

Another indulgence involved stopping at one of my favorite coffee shops (Espresso Royal, the one closest to the Capitol), and spending a few minutes there with a cup of hot apple cider and a copy of Isthmus.

State Street, which connects the Capitol and the UW campus, was crowded, lively, and full of very good street musicians, and I couldn’t remember whether it was like that every weekend, or whether a football game or the book festival was to blame. Which, by the way, brings me to the reason for my trip to Madison – the Wisconsin Book Festival.

My first event was a panel on fiction writing, organized by the UW Creative Writing program. It was held at the building known as Red Gym. (I don’t think there’s a gym in there now.) The panel before ours was on atrocities, so we had to keep our voices low. Are you here for atrocities? No, fiction. Ah, okay.

I can’t vouch for the atrocities, but our panel was a lot of fun, moderated by the incomparable Judy Mitchell, who asked the best questions.

It was nice to be among my fellow UW people – old friends and new. After the panel, some of us walked to Crave, a stylish – if somewhat overpriced -- local restaurant, decorated in lovely greens. We used to go there a lot during my year in Madison.

Later I did a reading with Meena Alexander, a fabulous poet, originally from India. We were supposed to read and then have a conversation about writing in our second language – or something like that. But the festival organizers allocated only 50 minutes for the whole thing, so of course we ran out of time and ended up conversing and signing books out in the hallway.

Part of the fun of these readings is the chance to reconnect with old friends. But it’s equally thrilling (and kind of unbelievable) to speak to people whom I hadn’t previously met, people who came to hear me read, people who responded to something in my writing.

The other day, in an e-mail interview a fellow Russian asked me if I thought Americans liked to see immigrants portrayed as “helpless, confused, but trying to find themselves in American reality,” or as she put it the “right” sort of immigrants. “Is this the type of newcomer they want to see?” she asked me.

Perhaps I’m not jaded enough, but I haven’t experienced that degree of condescension, at least not from the people I know or those who’ve read the book so far. On the contrary, most American readers I’ve met identify with immigrants, see immigrant stories as part of their own history. In Madison, a couple of people told me that they too were Jewish of Russian descent – though it was their parents/grandparents who immigrated – and that connection was important to them.

But wait, I didn't mean to get all serious here! After the reading, some of us relocated to the bar across the street. Paul’s, I think, it was called, the one with a tree in the middle. Apparently there had been a game earlier that day and it hadn’t gone well for UW. So the bar was full of these anguished UW guys who wanted to know what we had thought of the game. One of them was especially persistent (and seriously drunk). I told him I was Russian and knew nothing of sports. Well, he said, that was great, ‘cause he had some problems with Russia, particularly with President Putin who just hadn’t been behaving well lately, and what did I have to say about that? Not much, as it turned out. I assured him I would convey his concerns to President Putin the next time I see him, and on that note, we parted.

So that was Wisconsin. My only regret is that due to my travel schedule I didn’t get a chance to attend some of the Book Festival events. Michael Cunningham was reading on Sunday (that’s today!) So was Patricia Hampl, who will be visiting us here at UConn in the spring. I was hoping to catch her reading in Madison, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be. I was on the flight home at 7 in the morning. And let me tell you, it's good to be home.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Pub. Date/Anniversary

Today is the official pub. date for the Chicken. Not sure if it means anything in practical terms -- since the book has been already selling for a couple of weeks on Amazon and some bookstores. But still, the pub date!

By sheer coincidence, today also happens to be the 15th anniversary since my family and I came to the US. (Cue in “Memories” from Cats.)

By way of celebration, I got interviewed by a local paper (Chronicle) this morning. It was fun, and I got to see what their office looked like.

And now I must run to school: today is the first installment of the student reading series. I really like the graduate students at the English department here. (Which is not to say anything bad about undergraduate ones – I just haven’t met many of them yet.) But the graduate students seem to have a really strong and supportive community, which reminds me of the way it was in Syracuse among MFA students.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


I’m still figuring out the way blogspot works in terms of moderating comments. I don’t want to have to “approve” (or “reject”) each message. I will however delete the abusive ones.

So to the “fluffy” in question, who’s been trying to post more flaming comments here, I have this to say: Please get a life. Yes, you’re entitled to your opinions, but I’m not obligated to provide a forum for them. Start your own blog, or write your own book if you wish. There are plenty of ways for you to express yourself. This blog, however, is not one of them.