"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." — Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Mountain of Crumbs: A Memoir by Elena Gorokhova

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Summary: The memoir of a young girl growing up in World War II Russia. 

Memoirs always fascinate me, sometimes because I can't ever imagine my life being the way the author describes, and sometimes because I wonder if I could describe all the intricacies, rituals and secret pains of my own childhood as well as the author.

Elena Gorokhova begins her memoir the way many memoirists do, writing about her mother's early childhood and life. The 'mountain of crumbs' refers to a trick Elena's grandmother played on Elena's uncle as a child. During the food shortages in 1920, Elena's grandmother would crumble a slice of bread or a lump of sugar into small bits, piling it high on the table and then challenging her son to eat that entire mountain of crumbs. He was fooled into thinking himself blessed with bounty, and eating each crumb one by one also took time, as well.

Elena then goes on to describe her mother's first jobs as a doctor and then an obstetrician, and her three marriages. Unfortunately, once Elena starts describing her own life and childhood, I was bored. Elena has the typical childhood selfishness and nightmares, and I wished the book had shared more of her mother's life.

The most fascinating scene of Elena's life comes when she is studying English and comes across the following sentence:
"Helen and her new husband lost their privacy when her mother moved across the street." After consulting my English-Russian dictionary, I figured out that it had to do with the word "private," as in the "private property" that plagues all capitalist countries, according to our third-grade history book. Perhaps they lost some money, I thought, some essential part of their private property, but it was still unclear how it was caused by the mother's move. 
After struggling with the dictionary, Elena and her tutor decide that "privacy" is a word that doesn't exist in Russian. More fun with the Russian language comes when her class is sent into the dentist in alphabetical order:
My name is at the front of the alphabet, G being the fourth letter, after A, B and V.
This book offered amusing glimpses into Russian life and culture - once people see a line, they get in it, because at the end must be something worth waiting for - but the poverty, deprivation, and opposite world view still didn't make this memoir memorable.

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