September 24, 2013
A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova
Elena Gorokhova was born to a Physician mother and her third husband. Her mother, having gone into the medical field as it was deemed a reliable profession, has a series of unfortunate marriages which results in two kids. Elena, and her sister Marina. Elena grows up in a typical Russian household (not quite peasant but not the highest class of society either) and from an early age has an interest in the English language. This combined with her sister's desired profession of acting provides her mother with quite a few fits as she'd rather have them be in the medical field or engineers. Still, they follow their dreams and Elena follow the path of learning English only to have it present her opportunities that might not have existed otherwise.
Since this is a memoir we get Elena's opinions on all her family with her bias. Her sister, she obviously adored and admired, I can't recall too much bad being said about her. Elena definitely seemed to look up to her. Her mother, she was a bit harsh on. Several times in the book she mentions wanting to get away from her mother, but yet I don't feel as if we ever had the reason fully explained. She didn't agree with some of Elena's choices, but no huge fights or other disagreements are shown to back up that relationship. Regardless, her mother sounds like a wonderful woman and accomplished a lot with her life. I found her part of the book the best. Elena's father was a bit more distant but he seemed doting and despite not really wanting kids, he clearly loved Elena. Other people move in and out of her life and appear in stories, but aren't given the kind of description her immediate family is. Excepting one marvelous uncle that she meets on vacation.
As a memoir, this one is fairly standard. The author has a different spin because she grew up in Russia, so to an American reader there is a lot of interest and difference when compared to growing up anywhere else. Just the thought of queuing up for toilet paper is amazing to me, but it was a reality for Elena. But she does spare a lot of the troubling aspects and focuses more on funny stories about teaching English or her vacation near Turkey, or random things like that. The history and Russian politics is more told through her mother's story, which is a shorter part of the book. Despite having all these different aspects though, I found the pace of the book kind of slow. The stories, while showing Elena's life, stretched on a bit too much and could have been made more concise. It wasn't that I wasn't interested in them. I was in the beginning, but when they stretched into describing different kinds of alcohol and other random details, it lost my attention a bit. And I wish we would have had a little more than the short epilogue on her adjustment to life in America. You can definitely tell that she studied English extensively though, in my opinion, this book is flawless in language except for normal things that any English writer would do.
I would probably give this book 3.5 stars. Elena clearly led an intriguing and unconventional (by American standards anyway) life and I just wish that we would have had the opportunity to learn more about certain areas of her life than read the massive amount of detail that was spent on others. However, the parts about her mother were excellent and definitely the best part of the book.
A Mountain of Crumbs