I just finished my first book for review and it was excellent! I posted my review over at Five Minutes for Books, but I wanted to make it about twice as long because I had the hardest time choosing which quotes to use and which examples to give. Then it occurred to me: I could post a review over there, and then review it AGAIN here and use other quotes. So you should go read my post over there first, and then come back and get more details here. There’s still a lot I’m leaving out, so you’ll want to read it yourself.
A Mountain of Crumbs: A Memoir is a memoir written by Elena Gorokhova, who grew up in Soviet Russia in the 1960s and 70s. Although she’s got the horror tales—like when her uncle tells an old, mild joke about not needing to get book for a superior because he’s got one already, and is taken away and shot for being subversive—this is ultimately the story of a life. As such, it deals with her relationship to her older sister, her memories of running away from nursery school, white nights in Leningrad (which is of course now again St. Petersburg), with its lace ironwork and pearly domes. She beautifully recounts a summer in the family’s dacha, her father going fishing and her mother cooking raspberry jam in the heat, her father caught in a storm once and returning late, while the family was so worried they couldn’t speak. She tells of his death when she was 10; after her mother petitioned and petitioned the local communist party, they finally allowed her father—who’d been a member for more than 40 years—to be admitted to hospital. In fear, her mother has Elena call for an update. A disembodied voice announces to the child that her father has died.
The writing is sparse but often beautiful, with descriptions that transport through space and time. I love how she sees the story of her country echoed in her own mother’s life. Her mother is approximately the same age as the communist government, and for Elena, the parallels are evident. Both are overprotective and short-sighted and overbearing and all-encompassing. It is only when she leaves both of them, marrying an American and moving to Texas, that she is able to make peace with the relationships. Yet she has glimpses of a different mother, in a portrait from when she was a teenager, and in an old journal she finds. How did it happen? How did her mother change so much? she both wonders and worries.
Her country is no longer the land of the tsars reflected in the great literature of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and as she reads Russian classics, she and her classmates have a hard time picturing their descriptions of chestnut curls against lavender dresses, and grand salons and balls. . From an early age, Elena questions the party-line crammed down her throat by the communist party. Even in nursery school, when she and a friend dare explore outside the school courtyard and are scolded with the words, “What makes you so special, so different from the rest of the collective, that you think you can run off?” By third grade, when the polyester red scarf symbolizing her membership in the Young Pioneers is tied round her throat, she already recognizes the hypocrisy and hype. I wonder how much of it is an unusual perception for her age, and how much of it was typical, especially since throughout the book runs the theme of vranyo, pretending. ““My parents play it at work and my older sister Marina plays it at school. We all pretend to do something, and those who watch us pretend that they are seriously watching us, and don’t know we are only pretending.”
Donn visited Russia (the far east) in the late 90s. He brought back these painted wooden cups that I love, one for each member of the family. Unfortunately somewhere along the way, we lost one of the kids’ cups. (How is this possible? We would always have packed them in the same box. ??? For those of you who don’t believe in malignant fairies, think again! Or possibly universal black holes opening at random whenever people are in transit. Seriously. Related: how could we lose half of Abel’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid Box of Books, when we packed all his books in one box?) The reason I bring this up is that the cover of A Mountain of Crumbs: A Memoir matches the cups! How cool is that?