Friday, August 12, 2011

A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova — 308 pgs

A Mountain of Crumbs: A MemoirIn this memoir, the life of a young woman growing up in cold war Leningrad is explored with depth and feeling as she struggles to come of age in the very forbidding and intense landscape of the former Soviet Union. Life for Elena and her family hasn’t always been easy. Through her parents’ hard work, Lena and her sister aren’t living at the bottom rungs of the communist society, but there isn’t a lot of extra in their lives either. Elena’s mother, once a surgeon during the war, is now teaching anatomy at the university. Elena has been raised to believe in the superiority of Russia and communism and to regard the rest of the world with suspicion and cynicism. Much to her mother’s dismay, these views strangely begin to melt away as she matures into a young woman. When Elena’s sister decides to pursue a career in acting instead of medicine or engineering, the idea that there multiple paths to happiness begins to occur to her, despite the messages she gets from society. As Elena begins to rise through the professional world and falls in line to do exactly what’s expected of her, a chance meeting with an American drastically alters the future that has been so carefully arranged by her and her mother. When the once iron grip of the Soviet Union begins to loosen its hold on Elena, her life will never be the same and the future that‘s laid out before her will be unlike anything she could have ever imagined.

This book has been compared to the Russian version of Angela’s Ashes, and has also been touted as being amusing and wry, which is not exactly my experience with it. While I did grow to appreciate this coming of age story, the first hundred pages were a little rocky for me. When the storyline began to shift, I must say I was a little more pleased that the book was going in a different direction. I’m not sure if my reactions were due to the very maudlin aspects of life in Russia or due to the fact that everything in this tale seemed so dark and reeked of cynicism, but for the most part, I found this to be a very heavy read. It’s not that this was a bad book, but it was, for the most part, rather darkly portrayed.

Elena is a girl like most. She hungers for love and opportunity and doesn’t quite understand how to discover the secrets behind these things and how to figure out the mysteries of life. She’s very secretive with her mother and doesn’t seem to have a very healthy relationship with her at all. It was easy to see why, though, because her mother was extremely militant about controlling her daughters and forcing them to do the things that she found acceptable. I got the feeling that Elena was proud of her mother, but that doesn’t translate into intimacy, which is something I don’t think Elena had with anyone in the story. A lot of her reactions to the world around her were very familiar to me because a lot of them dealt with her feelings of disconnection from that world; a world that she would one day be expected to take part in and flourish in. It was obvious that Elena suffered from a great amount of naivety and to a certain degree had been very sheltered throughout her upbringing, and I kept asking myself if this was a byproduct of the very oppressive place in which she lived or her mother’s overprotectiveness. In some ways I felt that Elena never really matured the way that those in the West do; she never had those coming of age moments that are so crucial to forming adult perceptions. When she did finally have these moments, she had already crossed the threshold into adulthood.

It bothered me a little to hear all the comments about how the West was filled with rotten capitalist pigs, and how our society was belittled as an untrustworthy foreign melange full of greed and debauchery. I began to realize that although Elena and her parents said these things often, these ideas stemmed from the propaganda that the Soviet Union generated over many years and thorough various means. This doesn’t mean that it wasn’t annoying, only that I understood how a group of people could be so indoctrinated into thinking that the progressive west was just too radical and progressive. To tell you the truth, the Russia of this time sounded horrible, and stories of waiting in line for hours to procure a few rolls of toilet paper seemed as alien to me as capitalism probably seemed to Elena and her family. The Russia of this time period was no joke, and Gorokhova really succeeds in identifying the menacing aspects that the government used to keep its citizens under control. These sections, to me, were the darkest of the book, and lent Elena’s reminiscences a casual cruelty and sense of abiding provocation.

There was a very deep sense of pragmatism that permeated the minds of the characters in this story. Despite the very foreign aspects of life in cold war Russia, it was clear to see that the people living in this society were not only downtrodden and overburdened, but deeply instilled with a degree of pride and a false illusion of superiority. As Elena realizes that life in Russia is not what she wants and takes steps to release the country’s hold over her, she begins to see that the life she and her family have been living is one of half realized dreams and fruitless sacrifice. Though the situation that enables her to escape is not a perfect solution, it’s one I think many will be able to relate to, and one that Elena herself feels a begrudging appreciation for, despite it’s challenges and inconveniences. When all is said and done, Elena is able to make peace, not only with herself, but more importantly, with her mother and her homeland.

Though this wasn’t my favorite memoir, it did provide a lot of chewy food for thought and a very deep exposure to a way of life that’s extremely alien to my own. It was filled with the cultural details that readers of this genre will appreciate, but there’s no denying that the story is rather bleak. I did end up admiring Elena Gorokhova for her stoicism and her ability to persevere, and I think that this is a book that would open a lot of readers’ eyes to the very different lives that are lived outside the United States.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

16 comments:

Amy said...

Another interesting book. It does sound rather dark but I'm glad to hear you still enjoyed it. Regarding the propaganda, there are seeds of truth to the greed and crazy capitalism here too though, I think most propaganda requires a grain of truth to really thrive. It's interesting really to look at what gets spread and how - I mean, in some ways the way we view Africa is just more propaganda and it's easy to see how the media sometimes unconsciously plays a part in spreading these messages.

bermudaonion said...

I've read mixed things about this book and from your review, I can understand why. I think I'd still like to give it a try one day.

Jenny said...

I haven't read Angela's Ashes, but this reminds me of the books I've read about North Korea, the way people and kids are essentially brainwashed into thinking the West is all these horrible things and the way they have such pride for their country. Scary!

nomadreader said...

The topic of this one sounds quite interesting to me, but for some reason I struggle with bleak memoirs. I can read bleak fiction inspired by real events all day, but it sounds like the darkness of this one might steer me away.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I downloaded this on my Kindle after I read Marie's review. I am fascinated with Stalinist Russia, probably because this dark cloud hung over not only the Soviet Union but all of Eastern Europe as well. I have heard the stories from my husband's parents and through my husband's grandfather's journal. I need to read this soon.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

The thing is that the U.S. really can look like a greedy nation of capitalist pigs if you are outside the system. Ironically, however, the minute the Soviets got outside of it, they became the same, which really, to me, only validates Marx's observations that societies can't really be bootstrapped into giving up greed. The other thing is, if your society is in very bad shape like the USSR was at that time, you (i.e., the government) really have to get people believing they are still better off than The Other, or you've got big political loyalty problems. To me, I feel it's good to remember also that while they may have been horrified over the idea of capitalism, we were just as horrified by communism, and, in the McCarthy Era, went on a veritable witch hunt to destroy anyone with even a whiff of sympathy for other ways of life.

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) said...

Very interesting. I'm glad that it provided insight even if it wasn't a total hit. I've been read a lot of WWII and other historical fiction, lately. Some of it works and some of it doesn't.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

You have such a way of turning a phrase - "chewy food for thought."

I appreciate your review, Heather ... like Kathy, I've read mixed reviews, and couldn't understand how such a memoir could be "amusing and wry." I'll take your assessment, and add it to my list of memoirs to look for.

TheBookGirl said...

This is the first I've heard of this book. I did read Angela's Ashes, which of course was quite sad, but at least there were flashes of McCourt's dry humor to break it up every once in a while -- sounds like there's no such relief here.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I had this on in my TBR pile, but them moved it out as I thought it would be way to depressing at the time.

Darlene said...

This is one memoir that I'd like to read. I find things to d with Russia or the way they used to live fascinating. I'll eventually read this one.

Lisa said...

This does sound like an interesting book with a lot to think about. I'm not sure whether or not it's something I'll read--you've recommended enough great books for me to pass over something that you don't like as much.

Aths said...

I realize that I haven't read a book set in Russia. It's interesting to see the anti-West sentiment in the book but I'm curious about how the sentiment is expressed - as something Elena still believe or something she used to believe. I read another book about a totally different subject in which I had that issue - that was also a memoir and the person had a very prejudiced mindset about certain kinds of people but it bothered me that she still believed it.

Geosi said...

I have read few memoirs and i amy like to read this one. Thnaks for the breakdown.

Teddy Rose said...

I thought Angela's Ashes was so depressing. I can imagine how depressing "A Mountain of Crumbs" must be. I may read it someday.

softdrink said...

I picked this up a few times at the bookstore, but never could commit to buying it. I was interested in the Russia angle, but it just seemed like yet another person who had to write a memoir, if that makes any sense.

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