*Project Recap: For one year, I will read one book per month that I know nothing about that was recommended to me by a stranger; friend; family member, or co-worker; and I will write about that experience. God help us all.
A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova
Book #1, read during November, 2014
When I began A Mountain of Crumbs, I gleaned from the summary that it was a memoir about a woman living in Russia. I’ll admit, the stupid American part of me knew the following about Russia: Putin; homophobia; I once worked with a Russian woman that I couldn’t stand, and I once worked with a Russian woman that I liked; it’s cold; and Sarah Palin can see it from her house (it never gets old!).
The book is indeed a memoir about the author’s childhood through early adulthood in post-Stalin Russia, and is a fascinating first-hand glimpse into an era and country so different from my own as a 30-something American who came of age in the late 20th century. The author begins by laying the groundwork of her grandmother and mother’s lives in communist Russia under Stalin’s rule. Many writers often fall down the rabbit hold when describing a person’s history by delving out too much detail, which can disillusion the reader, but Gorokhova gives you just enough details to keep you interested. You are introduced to strong women during WWII who scraped lice from wounds on the front and existed among such extreme poverty, whilst being trained as doctors and physicists. Reading this seemed shockingly progressive for the status of women in the world in the early 1900s when women in America could barely vote, and this glaring discrepancy between capitalism and communism reflects Gorokhova’s own questioning of right and wrong throughout the book. Growing up in a communist country filled Gorokhova’s youth with stories of war, extreme nationalism, and duty to country. Her history lessons in grade school consisted of cautionary tales against hoarding food from your fellow comrade, sacrificing friend and family alike for the cause. At first, I felt a sense of oppression on the author’s behalf that their thoughts and actions were so controlled by their government. However, on further examination, the U.S. is in many ways not so dissimilar from that “other” country and time; for example, we still recite the Pledge of Allegiance where we reaffirm our devotion to the U.S. as children on a daily basis, which is not altogether different from the allegiances made in communist-Russia.
Adding to the content of the author’s life is how she expresses her experiences; though in first person, she writes with the voice of whatever age she is throughout any given period in the book. When she’s a young child, she writes about her father and with only a young girl’s admiration, describes him as an invincible, larger than life character. As she enters puberty, she romanticizes relationships with boys in her class with flowery fantasies bordering on the melodramatic that I could immediately pinpoint as the thoughts of a girl just entering her teenage years, mainly because my childhood was filled with those inclinations as well. Concerning writing style, I found myself attracted to the way that Gorokhova uses restraint, dabbled with bits of the most sobering realities of early to mid 20th century Russian life, enveloped in an overall softness that lets you know that you’re in good hands with a narrator that is just trying to figure things out, as most of us are.
The experience of reading this book was (thankfully) pleasurable. My life of what I know about Russia has expanded far beyond my opening paragraph, and I understand why it was recommended to me with such gusto. Once my spouse told me that the reason he loves movies so much is that they let you experience other cultures and times, and this book does just that. It also is a bridge of a book; it enables you to make connections between the then and now, and reduces the oh so tempting tendency to other people of disparate times and places.