A Mountain of Crumbs: A Memoir

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Overview

Elena Gorokhova’s A Mountain of Crumbs is the moving story of a Soviet girl who discovers the truths adults are hiding from her and the lies her homeland lives by.

Elena’s country is no longer the majestic Russia of literature or the tsars, but a nation struggling to retain its power and its pride. Born with a desire to explore the world beyond her borders, Elena finds her passion in the complexity of the English language—but in the Soviet Union of the 1960s such a passion ...

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A Mountain of Crumbs: A Memoir

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Overview

Elena Gorokhova’s A Mountain of Crumbs is the moving story of a Soviet girl who discovers the truths adults are hiding from her and the lies her homeland lives by.

Elena’s country is no longer the majestic Russia of literature or the tsars, but a nation struggling to retain its power and its pride. Born with a desire to explore the world beyond her borders, Elena finds her passion in the complexity of the English language—but in the Soviet Union of the 1960s such a passion verges on the subversive. Elena is controlled by the state the same way she is controlled by her mother, a mirror image of her motherland: overbearing, protective, difficult to leave. In the battle between a strong-willed daughter and her authoritarian mother, the daughter, in the end, must break free and leave in order to survive.

Through Elena’s captivating voice, we learn not only the stories of Russian family life in the second half of the twentieth century, but also the story of one rebellious citizen whose curiosity and determination finally transport her to a new world. It is an elegy to the lost country of childhood, where those who leave can never return.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Artful memoir about the angst and joys of growing up behind the Iron Curtain. . . . Articulate, touching and hopeful.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Extraordinarily rich in sensory and emotional detail . . . An engrossing portrait of a very lively, intelligent girl coming of emotional and intellectual age in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union.”
Bookpage

“Wry . . . both comic and anguished . . . but never cold or simple.”
Booklist

“Three pages into this beautifully crafted memoir and you know that Gorokhova has always been a writer. . . . the kind that envelops and transports you and every so often leaves you breathless. . . . Recounted in shimmering detail.”

—Bill Ervolino, The Bergen Record (New Jersey)

Gorokhova has the reader in the palms of her hands. . . . Stellar . . . This compelling and unusual tale . . . is inherently captivating.”
—Christine Thomas, The Miami Herald

“Exquisitely lyrical . . . Every page of Elena Gorokhova s coming-of-age-in-the-Soviet-bloc memoir unveils the magic of her origins. . . . Stunning.”
—Anne Grant, Providence Journal-Bulletin (RI)

“A dream ride . . . A delight . . . with pitch-perfect lyricism, tremendous power of recall, and disarming wit.”
—Kapka Kassabova, The Guardian (UK)

A Mountain of Crumbs is . . . a stunning memoir: subtle, yet brimming with depth and detail.”
—Viv Groskop, The Daily Telegraph (UK)

“Brims with an elegiac emotion and sensuality which even Turgenev, in his own European exile, might have envied.”
—Charlotte Hobson, The Spectator (UK)

“Remarkable . . . beautiful and evocative and worth your attention.”
—Nathan Thornburgh, DadWagon.com

“Her richly detailed story explores the reality of her politically subversive passions for language and freedom in a fearful, failing society that distrusted its citizens and repressed individuality.”
Saga (UK)

“Gorokhova is a lush and beautiful writer. Her tidy, witty descriptions of characters keep the book moving along at a good clip . . . the rich political milieu of the former Soviet Union sets this book apart. You really do get the feeling of what it smelled, tasted and felt like to grow up in that particular place and time.
— Ellen Silva, senior editor, NPR’s All Things Considered

“An exquisitely moving memoir detailing Gorokhova’s experiences of growing up behind the Iron Curtain. Her story of oppression and hope is described in distinctive poetical prose.”
Marie Claire (UK)

“Despite the specificity of the memoir, the themes and characters have universality - a domineering mother, a rebellious child, finding passion and beauty in surprising places. A celebration of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity and oppression.”
Easy Living (UK)

“Combining Gorokhova’s fantastic eye for an image with her acute sense for the absurd, A Mountain of Crumbs elegantly dramatizes the bewildering chasm between the projected, glittering idealism of the Soviet Union and its drab, quotidian reality.”
—Claire Allfree, Metro (UK)

“In this gently delightful memoir, Elena Gorokhova recounts her coming of age in Russia during 1960s and 1970s . . . There’s a wonderful cozy intimacy to her writing; her use of the present tense keeps it fresh and unburdened . . . I loved reading A Mountain of Crumbs. Gorokhova is a fine writer with a delicate, sensitive touch, whose voice in nonetheless fearless and clarion. I hope there’s a sequel. After coming of age comes surely that other great memoir, coming to America.”

—Wendell Steavenson, The Sunday Times (UK)

“It takes talent to write a good memoir and Gorokhova has more than most. Fascinating anecdotes show us her mother’s youth, and her own recollections spring to life with an artist’s eye for those details that can conjure a mood or a moment. The privations, oppressions and joys are all described with shining curiosity in this captivating book.”
Waterstone’s Books Quarterly

The Daily Beast
“A moving memoir about one woman’s journey from the Soviet Union . . . Captivating.”
Dwight Garner
…slight…but endearing, a collection of well-sculptured memories about the deprivations and joys of [Gorokhova's] childhood in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). It's a book about many things, notably class, politics, identity and sex, but one that circles around as often as not to the author's rumbling stomach…A Mountain of Crumbs is a minor-key coming-of-age story, one that's tinged with real darkness around its edges.
—The New York Times
Elena Lappin
…[Gorokhova's] exquisitely wrought, tender memoir of growing up in the Soviet Union…could be taught as a master class in memoir writing: the key is not to collect facts and recollections but to truthfully reimagine one's life…Gorokhova writes about her life with a novelist's gift for threading motives around the heart of a story, following its plot with a light touch and unwavering honesty. Each chapter distills a new revelation in poetic prose
—The New York Times Book Review
Nora Krug
In her eloquent book…Gorokhova…chronicles the complicated journey that led to this point. It's a rich tale of life behind the Iron Curtain.
—The Washington Post
Library Journal
Gorokhova presents an evocative memoir of her childhood in St. Petersburg during the Cold War and her path to immigration to the United States. Weaving together threads from the lives of her parents, relatives, and classmates, as well as her own coming-of-age experiences, Gorokhova ably depicts the hardships of life in the waning years of the restrictive Soviet regime. Despite these struggles and the sorrow of the early death of her father, Gorokhova's tale is balanced by jewel-like moments of beauty, optimism, and appreciation of Russia's cultural richness. The author succeeds also in perceptively illustrating the mindset of collectivism that permeated Soviet society, a philosophy that will likely be wholly alien—yet thought-provoking—to many American readers. Written with a lyrical, poetic touch, the narrative occasionally veers too far into a mundane recitation of daily events, but memoir fans will find inspiration in Gorokhova's ability to find hope and opportunity amid repression. VERDICT Best suited to autobiography readers interested in Soviet history, the Cold War, immigration experiences, or female coming-of-age memoirs.—Ingrid Levin, Salve Regina Univ. Lib., Newport, RI
Kirkus Reviews
Artful memoir about the angst and joys of growing up behind the Iron Curtain. Gorokhova vividly evokes the bleak years of the latter half of the 20th century in Russia, when the Great Patriotic War was followed by the Cold War and food shortages were the norm. The author blends cultural history into her narrative of daily life in cold Leningrad. She recalls gathering mushrooms with her mother, a professor of anatomy, and her sister, an actress. She dreamed of fishing in the Gulf of Finland with her father, a loyal party functionary. A sympathetic uncle once wrapped a stolen kotlety, complete with mushroom sauce, in a newspaper for her. She learned to join the longest queue she saw because something worthwhile might be at its end. She absorbed the teachings of Checkhov, Pushkin, Tolstoy and Lenin. She built friendships and nurtured adolescent crushes. Even though privacy was an unknown concept-there was no word in the Russian language for it-kissing, notes the author, was the same on either side of the cultural divide. Because of the author's proficiency in the English language, including "the twelve tricky tenses," she landed a job in the House of Friendship and Peace and also worked as a guide for foreign tourists. It was her language skills that facilitated emigration, and marriage provided the ticket to the unknown West. Now, years later, oligarchs have replaced apparatchiks, Leningrad is St. Petersburg again and Gorokhova is content in her new home. "In our private American space," she writes, "we can splice the cleaved halves of our souls and heals; we can change if we want to-transform ourselves, as my actress sister knows how to do-and no one will say we've betrayed the collective.We can simply live, and keep the door open, and wait for whatever enters."Articulate, touching and hopeful. Agent: Molly Friedrich/The Friedrich Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781439125687
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 2/8/2011
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 234,855
  • Product dimensions: 8.40 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Elena Gorokhova grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia, although for most of her life it was known to her as Leningrad. At the age of twenty-four she married an American and came to the United States with only a twenty kilogram suitcase to start a new life. The author of A Mountain of Crumbs and Russian Tattoo, she has a Doctorate in Language Education and currently lives in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Daily Telegraph, on BBC Radio, and in a number of literary magazines.

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Read an Excerpt

1. Ivanovo

I WISH MY MOTHER HAD come from Leningrad, from the world of Pushkin and the tsars, of granite embankments and lace ironwork, of pearly domes buttressing the low sky. Leningrad’s sophistication would have infected her the moment she drew her first breath, and all the curved façades and stately bridges, marinated for more than two centuries in the city’s wet, salty air, would have left a permanent mark of refinement on her soul.

But she didn’t. She came from the provincial town of Ivanovo in central Russia, where chickens lived in the kitchen and a pig squatted under the stairs, where streets were unpaved and houses made from wood. She came from where they lick plates.

Born three years before Russia turned into the Soviet Union, my mother became a mirror image of my motherland: overbearing, protective, difficult to leave. Our house was the seat of the politburo, my mother its permanent chairman. She presided in our kitchen over a pot of borsch, a ladle in her hand, ordering us to eat in the same voice that made her anatomy students quiver. A survivor of the famine, Stalin’s terror, and the Great Patriotic War, she controlled and protected, ferociously. What had happened to her was not going to happen to us. She sheltered us from dangers, experience, and life itself by a tight embrace that left us innocent and gasping for air.

She commandeered trips to our crumbling dacha—under the Baltic clouds, spitting rain—to plant, weed, pick, and preserve for the winter whatever grew under the rare sun that never rose above the neighbor’s pigsty. During brief northern summers we sloshed through a swamp to the shallow waters of the Gulf of Finland, warm and yellow as weak tea; we scooped mushrooms out of the forest moss and hung them on thread over the stove to dry for the winter. My mother planned, directed, and took charge, lugging buckets of water to beds of cucumbers and dill, elbowing in lines for sugar to preserve the fruit we’d need to treat winter colds. When September came, we were back in the city, rooting in the cupboard for gooseberry jam to cure my cough or black currant syrup to lower my father’s blood pressure. We were back to the presidium speeches and winter coats padded with wool and preparations for more April digging.

Maybe if I hadn’t spent every spring Sunday ankle-deep in cold, soggy dirt, I wouldn’t have been so easily seduced by the decadent sound of the English language that poured from the grooves of a record called Audio-Lingual Drills, my tutor’s pride. I might have gone to medical school, like my mother, or engineering school, like everyone else. I might have even married a Russian.

Maybe if I could have attached the word “intelligentsia” to her weighty figure in a polyester dress made by the “Bolshevik Woman” factory, I wouldn’t have had to escape to America on an Aeroflot flight, a startled face gazing from the passport in my hand, a ravaged suitcase on the KGB inspector’s table packed with twenty kilograms of what used to be my life.

MY GRANDFATHER, KONSTANTIN IVANOVICH Kuzminov, was a peasant. The countess who owned his village on the steep bank of the Volga five hundred versts from Moscow, feeling guilty for the centuries of serfdom, provided him with a scholarship to attend engineering school. My grandmother was the daughter of a factory owner in the textile town of Ivanovo, who employed most of the men in the village. They married two years before World War I broke out and five years before the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace and the country exploded into civil war.

By 1918, when the altruistic countess, among throngs of panicked nobility, sailed from the Crimea toward Turkey, my grandparents already had three children, my mother and her two younger brothers. The revolution, with its promise of liberation from the yoke of absolutism and paradise for all working people, seemed to offer the hope that Russia was on the mend, that centuries of inequality and slave labor were finally over and peace and prosperity almost within reach. But in 1920 food rations shrank yet again and the pall of famine settled over the country, a dawn to the six decades of terror already bleeding on the horizon.

That was when my grandmother invented the crumb game. At six and five years of age, my mother and her brother Sima were old enough to ignore their growling stomachs and make do with nothing but a piece of black bread and a cube of sugar, but three-year-old Yuva, my uncle who would die during the first minutes of the blitzkrieg in 1941, clenched his fists and bawled from hunger.

“Look at how much you’ve got,” my grandmother would say as she broke a piece of bread and a square of sugar into crumbs with her fingers. “A whole mountain of crumbs.” My mother and Sima, older and wiser, would exchange a secret look of pity for their baby brother, who allowed himself to be so easily fooled. “Two mountains,” my grandmother would say. Yuva would stop wailing and rub the snot over his cheeks, pacified by this semblance of abundance, two whole mountains, more bread and sugar than the one sad little square on everyone else’s plate, enough crumbs to pick at for a whole hour, to stick into his mouth one by one, plentiful and sweet.

By 1928 they lived in a two-story wooden house—my grandparents, their one daughter and now three sons, and Baba Manya, my grandmother’s spinster sister, resourceful, doughy, and kind. She resewed old clothes for the children who grew too fast, kept three chicks in the kitchen until they were eaten by a cat, and later, during another famine, after World War II, bought the last rickety piglet off a horse-drawn cart that had stopped for a few minutes on their street. The pig lived under the stairs and saved them all from starvation the following year.

In 1929 my mother’s younger sister, Muza, was born, the fifth and last child. “God gave us another girl,” announced Baba Manya from the porch where she stood in the breath of Indian summer, wiping her hands on an apron. “Praise the Trinity in Heaven, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” She didn’t know that a decree had come down from Moscow declaring religion dead—a sickly, fainthearted enemy kicked and stabbed and finally stuffed into the attic of the tsarist past.

“Not God,” protested my fifteen-year-old mother, flanked by her three younger brothers, standing knee-deep in clumps of dandelions, watching as my grandmother swaddled a flailing Muza, who was rapidly disappearing under layers of old sheets. “Our mama gave us another girl.”

“May your tongues fall off, all of you, godless fooligans!” yelled Baba Manya, hurriedly crossing herself. She meant to say “hooligans”—hooligani—but she either couldn’t pronounce the h sound or didn’t know the right word. That’s what they all became, my mother and her three brothers—fooligans, ardent and naïve, resolute and reckless, inspired by a new god, a crossbreed of hooligans and fools.

IN 1931 MY SEVENTEEN-YEAR-OLD mother, who had inherited my grandfather’s obstinacy and revolutionary fervor, pinned up her dark braids in hope of looking older and went to her first lecture at the Ivanovo medical school. Universities were now free, but candidates were accepted on the basis of their social class and not their merit: children of workers and peasants first, children of professionals last. Because my grandfather was no longer a peasant, my mother had to wait two months until a milkmaid’s daughter dropped out, creating an opening. In November, when rain washed over the dust covering Ivanovo’s roads and turned the town into lanes of mud, she became part of the first motley class of Soviet doctors, trained in the laboratory of the new state to be flung from their classrooms into the caldron of war.

In her first year of medical school she was taught by the novel “brigade” method: one student, the brigadier, took exams for the entire group of twenty. My mother pitied gangly Igor, who stood sweating in front of her class, craning his skinny neck over a textbook to read page after page in his monotonous voice, something about molecules and cells, a biology chapter he would be tested on at the end of the week. The test would either give credit to everyone in the group, now busy talking, daydreaming, and dozing off, or doom the whole lot to failure. Diligent and boring, Igor always passed.

By the second year, the brigade method was replaced with individual learning. A professor of anatomy arrived all the way from Moscow and promptly issued a failing grade to a former tractor driver. The days of dozing and daydreaming were over.

For the first time at the Medical Institute, my mother opened a textbook and by sheer force of will memorized the name of every bone, vein, muscle, tissue, tendon, and joint. She passed the anatomy final. She passed the surgery internship and the most serious exam of all, in scientific communism, a course hastily spun from quotes of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, a requirement for graduation in every university of the Soviet Union, across all its eleven time zones.

Three months after graduation, my mother was the chief and only physician of a fifteen-bed rural hospital thirty kilometers from Ivanovo, near a factory that produced bricks of peat mined from the nearby underground swamps. Brimming with energy and the enthusiasm of the first socialist generation, she was eager to make things better. It was 1937, the twentieth year of Soviet power, the busiest year of the Gulag camps. It was the twenty-third year of my mother’s life—when, for the first time, she left her parents’ home, when her future rose on the horizon like the huge crimson sun over the swamp outside her new apartment window.

She set up a trauma point where she bandaged victims of accidents, mostly work-related: severed fingers, broken arms, bruised backs and shoulders. But she knew she could do more. Although most of the factory workers were women, there was no maternity ward in the hospital. To give birth, women had to take a horse-drawn carriage to a district hospital eight kilometers away, a long ride on a road often buried under snow or washed out by rain. There had already been two babies born en route, one of whom did not survive the trip. She made a call to the local health department and was told that maternity wards were not a top priority at a time when epidemics of typhus and tuberculosis were mowing down entire towns.

Indignant at such a lack of insight on the part of the local authorities, my mother sat down and wrote a letter to the real leader. General Secretary, Moscow, the Kremlin. “Dear Comrade Stalin,” she began. “The patients at my hospital have no place to give birth to our new citizens. The Soviet women, who toil in peat swamps for our common bright future, deserve better.” She stopped to consider how to word her request so that in one simple, effective sentence she would cut through the necessary layers of steel to what she knew was the leader’s compassionate heart. “My apartment can easily be turned into a maternity ward with the help of a few necessary pieces of equipment (list attached). Please help.”

She thought of the best way to sign the letter, vacillating from “comrade” to “citizen” to “physician.” Comrade seemed too self-promoting: how could she be a comrade to the legend? Citizen was too impersonal. She finally chose her professional title, which still sounded strange, Dr. Galina Kuzminova.

The letter, she knew, was a gamble. Only months earlier, when she was living in the Ivanovo apartment with her parents, her siblings, and her uncle, there had been a knock on the door in the middle of the night. It was a loud, demanding knock, the kind that came only at two or three in the morning, the kind that everyone recognized even if they’d never heard it before. Two men in black coats marched straight to the room where her uncle Volya lived with his wife and fifteen-year-old daughter, turned the mattresses and all the drawers upside down, and announced that Uncle Volya was under arrest.

“For what?” asked Aunt Lilya in a ragged voice.

“You’ll find out,” muttered one of the men.

Uncle Volya stood in the middle of the room, in silly flannel pajamas, trying to quell an asthma attack. His round shoulders were slouched forward, and his mouth gasped for breath as he mopped his forehead with a handkerchief. “It’s all a mistake, a misunderstanding,” he whispered as soon as he could muster enough air, the handkerchief in his hand quivering. The men ordered him to put on a coat and escorted him to a van known as a voronok, or black raven, parked in front of their house. Weeks later Aunt Lilya learned that as part of his job in a propaganda agency, he’d taken a stranger from Moscow to a restaurant. There, sitting next to a good citizen dispatched by the NKVD—the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs—to listen to conversations with strangers, Uncle Volya told a joke.

It wasn’t even a political joke. Two militiamen are invited to Comrade Kozlov’s birthday party. What should we give him? asks one. The best gift is a book, says the other. No, says the first militiaman. Comrade Kozlov already has a book.

They had all heard this joke before, but now it sounded unfunny and flat. Why did Uncle Volya even bother telling such a bad joke? My mother knew he should have been more careful around strangers. Pasted all over town were posters of a woman in a red head kerchief with a finger across her lips and a caption ne boltai in big red letters: do not babble. Babbling was only one step away from treason. Still, she believed that the NKVD had made a mistake. How could Comrade Stalin possibly have arrested an innocent man, her meek and soft-jowled Uncle Volya? Everyone knew that Comrade Stalin wanted everyone to have a good life, whether they were peasants or professors.

Yet there it was still fresh in her memory, the image of her uncle’s trembling handkerchief and his arm missing the sleeve of his coat as the two men yanked all ten volumes of his collected works of Chekhov off the shelf, shaking them open, tossing them on the floor, angry that they could find nothing inside.

My mother also thought of my grandfather, who, in 1921, according to family lore, had telegraphed Lenin when a train full of wheat brought for the starving people of Ivanovo had been detained by a squadron of Red Army soldiers with shotguns. A few hours later, as the story went, the train was allowed to pass, thanks to her father’s telegram.

In her mind, the scene of Uncle Volya being led away into the black voronok for telling a joke wrestled for a few minutes with the happy image of the Ivanovo citizens saved from starvation by a telegram. She stubbornly decided to believe that Stalin did not know of this obvious injustice, that it all happened as the result of an un-Soviet struggle for power among his crooked underlings.

But now she was writing directly to Stalin, the country’s conscience and revolutionary glory. My mother signed the letter, folded it in quarters, and gave the envelope to Fyodor, who tended to the hospital horse Verochka and every other day drove the buggy eight kilometers to the nearest town.

A few weeks later, when routine traumas and illnesses had focused her attention away from the letter addressed to the Kremlin, she was called to the office of the head of the district health department. Comrade Palkin sat behind a desk, decked out in a military uniform like Stalin and thin-framed round glasses like the head of the NKVD, Beria. His head was small and bald, with wisps of down over the ears, and his thick forearms, which looked like they belonged to a bigger man, lay on the desk like logs. Leaning over the papers before him as if they were his prisoners, he failed to get up when my mother walked in, despite my grandmother’s assertion that a man had no choice but to stand when a woman entered a room.

“Whom did you write to?” Palkin asked gravely, barely waiting for her to sit down.

“I wrote to Secretary Stalin,” said my mother.

Palkin stared stonily from behind his glasses, and she thought of Uncle Volya. They still hadn’t heard anything about him, despite the fact that Aunt Lilya took a week off to travel to Moscow, where she spent four days and nights standing in front of the Lubyanka NKVD prison, waiting to speak to someone, never allowed inside.

But my mother wasn’t about to show that she was frightened, that her heart, contrary to all she knew about anatomy, was thumping somewhere in her throat. Showing what you felt was as dangerous as babbling. Lock up what you think, my grandmother had always said. What’s inside you no one can touch.

“I’ve just received this order from Moscow,” growled Palkin, baring bad teeth, stabbing a piece of paper with his finger while my mother imagined black voronoks and firing squads. “According to this order, Moscow is releasing fifteen thousand rubles to turn your apartment into a delivery room.”

He might as well have said fifteen million rubles. My mother made three hundred rubles a month, a salary her former classmates envied, and since her largest purchase ever had been a woolen winter coat, she’d never seen a ruble note with more than one zero.

Back at the hospital, she went to the peat factory director’s office and asked him to give her a room in the workers’ dormitory. Only days after her meeting with Comrade Palkin, the needed equipment arrived and was installed in her former apartment with an efficiency she’d never seen before. By the spring a four-bed maternity ward was opened, where my mother delivered fifteen babies. During deliveries, she learned how to use forceps, turn a fetus, and manually separate the placenta. The women at the peat factory expressed their gratitude with string bags of cucumbers from their gardens and an occasional tin of lard.

My mother felt euphoric and important: what she’d done had upheld poryadok, order. The order that the country needed, that she needed. She described all this in her letter home, which, when she reread it, sounded as lofty and stiff as the front page of Pravda. Yet what she wanted to say was simple and short.

She’d survived.

© 2009 Elena Gorokhova

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 37 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 37 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 23, 2012

    A wonderful glimpse into cold war Leningrad.

    This is a memoir that reads like a novel. From what I know know of life in the Soviet Union during the cold war it rings true, even though only a small amount of the horrors of life there are touched upon. I only wonder on the motives of the American man who returns to marry and take the Russian woman to the US. That is the only part of the book in which Gorokhova does not reveal herself.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted March 22, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Gorokhova Loves Our Language and It Shows

    This book is delightful and enlightening at the same time in how it depicts cold war USSR. Anyone who grew up in the USA during the time period described will enjoy a view from the other side of the Iron Curtain as told by someone whose personality and demeanor were as soft and as human as any of our own friends and countrymen.


    It is a story of loving, but at times emotionally limited. familial relationships contrasted against the disillusionment of a society that sacrificed blood for ideals that cruelly evaporated like a dream. In the waking hours of a society facing bitter disappointments, Gorokhova goes to work becoming a whole person.


    The story is not highly active or particularly provocative, there are very few monumental events. Yet, Gorokhova shares the same tremendous losses we all face as we come of age. This could be any woman's story of a mother-daughter relationship, but the landscape of Leningrad and the juxtaposition of women's roles in the USSR as professionals at at time when women in the US were burning their bras is intriguing and unique.


    Truly it's Gorokhova's love of language and attention to detail in her story and her skilled use of metaphor and well placed Socratic irony that make this book masterful and beautiful. I've been reading a lot of memoirs lately, and few received the love and attention in writing that this one has. It's not high on action, but if you love language it has moments that are utterly breathtaking.


    The subtlety and texture of this book and its view into another world by someone who can speak to our hearts so effectively is its greatest offerings. As a native English speaker I could only wish to capture the power of my own native tongue as masterfully and lovingly as Gorokhova has. This memoir is an act of true literature and should not be missed.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 21, 2014

    Fantastic read

    Paints a good picture of her childhood and pre-adult life. Very informative for us who never knew that type of life. Introduced a different view into what privileged life we lead, but still if that is your universe you don't know there is something different out there. I will be reading the sequel!

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  • Posted June 15, 2014

    Enjoyable, insightful, would have loved a deeper exploration. A

    Enjoyable, insightful, would have loved a deeper exploration.

    Almost everyone’s story includes a nod to the ‘old country’. If yours is found on the iron side of the curtain then Gorokhova’s ‘A Mountain of Crumbs’ will be familiar. The author braids together history, philosophy, and memoir, and in doing so, strengthens the book as a whole but forgoes depth in each subject.

    I found much to enjoy here and much to relate to: my own grandparent’s frugality. My mother’s firm belief in the satisfaction of hard work. My family’s sloughing off of the old ways. But I wish Gorokhova would have explored some things more deeply. Why was her mother such a staunch supporter of state truth? How did the author decide to leave country, family, and friends? I would have loved for her to juxtapose the poverty and security and welfare of the Soviet State versus freedom loving Americans allowing people to ‘sleep under bridges’ and suffer without healthcare.

    It seemed so easy for the author to leave her homeland and family. She never expresses longing for freedom or for the West but is mostly just perturbed with silly state protocol – the same things I feel when I renew my driver’s license. In fact, her decision to leave isn’t really even a decision: she simply jumps aboard a wind that blows from an American student: he proposes to her as a means to help her leave the USSR with the caveat that he will continue to see other women while they are married.

    However much I wished for something deeper I was absorbed by the book and story. The prose is wonderful, especially for a non-native speaker. The characters can be thin and, typical for memoirs, there are some dry spots but the story will carry anyone with an interest in family or history. This isn’t quite Tolstoy or Solzhenitsyn but a very good read in its own right. Well worth the cost.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 31, 2013

    Extremely Interesting! I think this book really takes off after

    Extremely Interesting!
    I think this book really takes off after a couple of chapters when the author 
    begins focusing  more on her life, not just her family's. Her life focuses on the
    difficulties of growing up in Russia in the 1950s, 60s. 70s and 80s, and she makes 
    this history very interesting by personalizing it. She's amazing at overcoming
    the challenges of her life in Russia. Her sense of humor also adds a lot to the interest
    and enjoyment of reading this.    
      

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  • Posted September 11, 2012

    vivid

    The memories that Elena Gorohkova relates are told in a vivid, calming style. She paints pictures with her words. Themes are woven through this book such as her mother's need to protect, the disillusionment with the Soviet system, her own need to break free of regimentation and explore the world. This is one of the best books I have read in quite some time.

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  • Posted September 5, 2012

    Recommended

    It is hard for U.S. citizens to imagine the grueling and dysfunctional daily life of ordinary people who lived in the USSR during the 1960's. Sometimes the stories she relates become comical in a sad sort of way. It reminded me of the old joke, "Who's on first?". For those who like to rage that the U.S. is becoming like communist or socialist societies - get a life - you have no idea of what you speak. Read this enlightening memoir and see just how blessed and privileged we are and will continue to be in this country!!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 20, 2011

    An Inside Look at Growing up in the USSR

    Usually don't like memoirs but Ms Gorokhova has a way with words that is charming, funny and yet very realistic. She paints a picture of growing up in the Cold War years that is vivid yet not heavy or pedantic. Her mother and mother Russia have many of the same character traits. Elena's courageous move to the unknown and her hard work are poignantly portrayed. I hope she is working on the next section
    ... I can't wait to read it!

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  • Posted June 6, 2011

    BORING!!!!!

    Sooooooo boring!!! Save your money.

    0 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 9, 2011

    Excellent & a MUST READ!

    A Mountain of Crumbs is an excellent read, detailing life during the Soviet era. Elena Gorokhova gives the reader a window into her life, as she details events from her childhood, as well as specifics in the life of her family members.

    It is nostalgic for some, as well as intriguing and heart-tugging for others. This is a story that is highly recommended.

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  • Posted April 6, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    A poignant memoir of a young girl growing up in Russua!

    A Mountain of Crumbs is a memoir about a young Soviet girl who comes of age during the 1960's and 1970's in St. Petersburg Russia - a country fraught with political struggles and vast limitations.

    The story opens after World War II while Russia is well into the throes of communism. Elena's well-educated mother is a trained physician with high expectations for both her daughters. Told through the author's own eyes, the memoirs provide the reader with a snapshot into everyday Russian life. It starts during Elena's childhood and the tale unfolds with innocence and vivid clarity.

    The creative title of the book came from the author's own grandmother who recalled that when her children complained there was not enough to eat but a crust of bread and a cube of sugar, she would crumble the food and sweet it into a pile and saying, "Look at how much you've got. A whole mountain of crumbs." It was her way of making a little look like a lot.

    While Elena's physician mother, Galina, strives to make her way in a communist world, raising her daughters with strictness and high expectations for education, the author describes her world without bias and in a matter-of-fact style.

    A Mountain of Crumbs is a fascinating memoir that reveals to readers a glimpse into the difficulties of growing up in a communist country. From the author's demanding mother, to an ill father who dies far too early, it is a contrast of joy and sadness, struggles and success.

    Although memoirs are seldom page-turners, this was a truly enjoyable book. The writing is beautiful and gives a good first-hand depiction of life in a country where nothing can be taken for granted. I thoroughly enjoyed this very private glimpse into the author's own life and appreciate the passion with which she wrote every word.

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  • Posted October 17, 2010

    Insightful and Entertaining!

    This novel was well written. So wonderfully descriptive I could practically taste the borscht prepared by her mother...An important glimpse into the life of a girl from the post-Stalin generation.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2010

    Growing up in the Soviet Union

    The author tells of her experience of growing up in the Soviet Union after World War II. She was already an independent thinker before that idea became popular. She perfectly describes the frustration she encountered when dealing with Russian mentality on all levels of life - from school to work to family. I wouldn't compare it to Angela's Ashes since it is a much less depressing book, but it is a book that is definitely worth reading since it is funny, touching and enlightening.

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