Published by Star Tribune, review written by: Laurie Hertzel
"Even if Elena Gorokhova weren't such a gorgeous writer, her memoir, "A Mountain of Crumbs...morePublished by Star Tribune, review written by: Laurie Hertzel
"Even if Elena Gorokhova weren't such a gorgeous writer, her memoir, "A Mountain of Crumbs," would be a terrific read. Gorokhova grew up in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and '70s, where her life was unremarkable in many ways: Her mother was a doctor, her father a member of the Communist Party, her older sister hoped to be an actress. The family lived in a Leningrad apartment, waited in line for consumer goods (such an ingrained part of Soviet life that Gorokhova barely mentions it) and spent summers at their country dacha, where they gathered mushrooms and made jam from wild strawberries.But even the most ordinary Soviet life would be fascinating to those of us who grew up during the Cold War and viewed the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire. What was it like on the other side of that curtain? Well, for starters, Elena and her friends were wondering the same things about us."What do we know about America, really?" her mother asks. "People beg on the streets and sleep under bridges and everyone walks around with a gun."
Gorokhova's parents came of age during a dramatic time. "Brimming with energy and the enthusiasm of the first socialist generation, she was eager to make things better," she writes of her mother. When her mother graduated from medical school, "it was 1937, the 20th year of Soviet power, the busiest year of the gulag camps ... her future rose on the horizon like the huge crimson sun over the swamp outside her new apartment window."
But Elena, born in the 1950s, is of a different generation. The glorious revolution, the Great Patriotic War, the Siege of Leningrad -- those are all part of history, and she is left to toil in the oppressive grayness of the Brezhnev years. When her teacher enthralls the class with stories of the revolution -- "workers and peasants inside the Winter Palace ... stomping up the October Staircase ... with their hammers and scythes" -- she cannot help but compare that with her own dull time, "when simply to enter the Hermitage you must put on cloth slippers, cinch them around your ankles and glide slowly under the gaze of a million babushkas in the corner of every room."
Elena has a lively, questioning mind, but she understands that in Soviet life, you must keep everything to yourself. Reveal nothing; it is simply too dangerous. "What's inside you no one can touch," she says.
She also knows that dishonesty is a requirement of survival. It is so fundamental there is a word for it: vranyo. "The rules are simple: They lie to us, we know they're lying, they know we know they're lying, but they keep lying anyway, and we keep pretending to believe them."
She writes with irony and subtlety about the "bright future" of the Soviet Union, even as she plans her exodus.
What makes this book so remarkable, though, is Gorokhova's evocative and sensuous writing. Leningrad "shimmers like a cameo." Her sister's school dormitory smells of "impermanence and other people's clothes." Envy "curdles her heart," and "baked-apple-faced babushkas" sit watch. And when she boards the train to Stankovo, "the whistle blows, and the platform begins to sail away."
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune's books editor. (less)
Ok, I'm officially giving up. Yes, I agree with my daughter that it's cool how the punishments fit the crime - like for theives, their own actual human...moreOk, I'm officially giving up. Yes, I agree with my daughter that it's cool how the punishments fit the crime - like for theives, their own actual human form keeps getting stolen and they are forced to shape-shift into reptilian form and back. Awesome.
But the payoff is insufficient.
How do I dislike these? Let me enumerate some of the ways:
Zillions of references to local politics of Italy circa 700AD - don't know, not that interested honestly.
Millions of references to mythology - don't know, so don't get it, and don't care very much.
Each bit of content is very short: a meeting, a conversation, a response, on to the next thing. All extremely episodic and lots of work digging in to all the meanings and allusions only to be suddenly finished. Blah.
In between that kind of content, these opaque place-descriptions and movement descriptions - lots of work, don't care that much.
Painting of Jews and Muslims as evil, by the way (unless I'm interpreting it wrong) - not surprising, since it's Christian-oriented. But unpleasant and off-putting.
Plus the whole thing about Virgil having been in Hell briefly due to living just before Christ was born. He was Roman though, right? The Romans didn't become Christian till Constantine (interesting story about that included - the leprosy and all); so he didn't really 'just miss' being born whole and living a life of grace. He just missed taking part of the gleeful persecution of Christ.
Which is fine, but it's like, the little bit that I do know of the situation underlying all this is out of kilter.
But I'm very happy to have been exposed to it. Honestly, I feel like - the people living then thought all these big thoughts? And wrote so ornately? And were that smart? And had that much history? It makes me remember how rich and textured human history is, going that far back.
So, there is that.
May use it for sleep-induction from time to time, or when feeling too content with my day or something. For the most part though, I declare myself finished with it. Bah!(less)
Had heard of this, and formed and impression of this, based on other things I read in Women's Studies in the 80's. But for the first time picked up a...moreHad heard of this, and formed and impression of this, based on other things I read in Women's Studies in the 80's. But for the first time picked up a copy at my daughter's school library, waiting for a meeting to start. I really like the tone of it.. Another Chicagoan! Looking forward to reading it all.
Her description of the way the ghetto-izing schools of Chicago intentionally robbed their students of an education, and the effect on her, is shocking. Also her description of her Dad's efforts to gain justice the 'right' way, and, again, the effects on her, hard to even imagine.
The format - part prose, part play - is jangling, but worth it of course.
It's sooo tragic how young she died (at age 34 in 1965)! All sixty-one of the artists who took place in the telling of 'Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words' to commemorate her on the second anniversary of her death, including Anne Bancroft, Lauren Bacall, Ralph Bellamy, Bette Davis, Ruby Dee, Colleen Dewhurst, Rita Moreno, Paul Robeson, Sidney Poitier, Maureen Stapleton, Rod Steiger and so many more - I'm even bigger fans of all of them.(less)
(warning - graphic violence in photo at the top of the browser window on this link)
Sounds like just the sort of thing that I'll be all caught up to, after Dark Valley. Lots of the worst things going on in the world, caught up in to one neat volume. But synthesis is useful..
Oh, wait, actually reading the review, sounds like it kinds of focuses a bit much on the physical atrocities vs. their meaning in the societal context; and it lays out other weaknesses of the book as well.(less)
I wanted something to accompany 'Dark Valley', something to add a little bit of map-content or visual of some kind, or alternately a different telling...moreI wanted something to accompany 'Dark Valley', something to add a little bit of map-content or visual of some kind, or alternately a different telling of the same content (always nice to have atleast two versions of anything). I saw this - heaven!
Each two-page spread is about some transition, period of time, or other concrete situation; and it goes from prehistoria to current. Certainly there are many choices built-in, and someone could differ with how they laid things out. But it seems to tie in well with 'Dark Valley'.
For instance, in Dark Valley, there is a section on Stalin and 1928-1933, and there is a two-page spread on exactly that. With one map showing who it was who fought against the Red Army (the White Army's generals, as well as foreign groups), where they started from and where they reached before they were stopped. Another map shows where in Europe other Communist groups existed for a while. Then, there's a great map about the industrialization that occurred, where each different kind of enterprise was situated, where the rail lines were put in. Also on that one is the different boundaries in different years during that period. Accompanying those three maps is text of the period, laying out with broad brush strokes the salient facts of the period. This book kinds of provides the pithy version, while 'Dark Valley' is more colorful, anecdotal, story-telling. Also there are different emphasis, this book doesn't emphasize nearly as much that the reason for the famine was Stalin actually taking the food away from the farmers. This one makes it seem more like it was a failure of farming structures.
So, exactly what I was looking for! Highly recommend for anyone interested in history/related subjects.
And it is *trying* to be not patriarchal, not biased, not from the point of view that White Europe = civilization; via inputs from the rest of the universe. But, of course, doesn't achieve a perspective fully separate from that, there are still blinders and all. Like on India, paraphrased: 'Although England brought many benefits to India, debate still continues on the overall legacy..' with no mention of the partition. etc.. But really does try to approach human activity from the onset of it to today, from an even-handedly global perspective. A great first go at it, for sure! Completely waylaid me tonite, was looking at Italy being in Somalia, then had to see before then, then before then.. fascinating.
Lots of skimming, in concert with 'The Dark Valley', highly recommend!(less)
Almost was thinking to read this now, because I just watched Aamir Khan in 'Earth' again today, an excellent telling of these events. But.. the tone d...moreAlmost was thinking to read this now, because I just watched Aamir Khan in 'Earth' again today, an excellent telling of these events. But.. the tone doesn't fit for me right now. And also just picked up a book from my daughter's history curriculum that will be my main book for a while, this doesn't work as a secondary book I don't think. So, will wait a bit longer..(less)
For my daughter's World Literature class, and looks fascinating.. I don't know if her class will be having a lecture on Egypt to help with all the rel...moreFor my daughter's World Literature class, and looks fascinating.. I don't know if her class will be having a lecture on Egypt to help with all the related context, but if anyone has any books they'd recommend for my reading to help fill in the gaps, I'd be grateful. Thanks!(less)
My daughter will be assigned readings from this in her history class this year. Sounds fascinating! Oddly (or not so), the teacher mentioned the kids...moreMy daughter will be assigned readings from this in her history class this year. Sounds fascinating! Oddly (or not so), the teacher mentioned the kids often don't like it much. Yet they'll know it's there as they get older and wiser, and they can return and appreciate it later (certainly most do). (perhaps).
The especially interesting thing about this is that it approaches these events and this period from an epistemological perspective. That is, it's all about what people thought they knew, why they thought they knew, what the differences were people the truth and what people thought they knew, the processes controlling the misinformation, etc.. And, in a nutshell, Brendon says in the intro that this period (the 30's) was marked in the vast disinformation spread and consumed, in the lack of truth actually possessed by most people, etc..
Relevance to today with the tactics in use still by many is profound.
On Hitler, speaking, early on in his quest for power (1922-1923 or so): "As Otto Strasser said, 'His words go like an arrow to their target, he touches each private wound on the raw, liberating the unconscious, exposing its innermost aspirations, telling it what it most wants to hear.'"
By the way: Marx really said 'Peasants are like potatoes in a sack.'?????
I finished it!! I finished it!! I finished it!! Woo-hooooo!!!! Yes, this is one of *those* books, when turning the last page is immensely satisfying. And also among the least satisfying, because there was so much there that I didn't get. So many words I'd honestly never heard of before, and references to things that I was oblivious to. Since I don't know what all the references were to, I can't be sure, but it seems one would need to be familiar with European & East Asian history from about 1850 forward, plus all the literature of those regions in that period as well. And then a smattering of ancient greek and roman times wouldn't hurt either. Despite that though, it was very informative. I especially liked towards the end when Piers would describe what this or that person believed, and then how totally, profoundly wrong they were. The primary example being Stalin, when he signed the pact with Hitler. Both this book and my companion text 'Concise Atlas of World History' stress that Russia lost more in resources and people than any other country. There is definitely a psychological thread that runs through this - specific cases of people knowing something, and maintaining denial of it enthusiastically, wishful thinking, manipulation, constructions of reality, etc.. Six weeks is all the time it took Hitler to take over France? Wow, no Verdun that time .. I've totally to read up on WWII itself again. The weirdest thing for me about this- hardly any mention of the Jewish people. Sure, there were brief descriptions of a few of the main points. But amazingly little, considering. And from my personal interest in India, I paid attention to all mentions of it. There were more than enough to be indexed, seems to me (but India wasn't), and unfortunately all did speak to a certain English chauvinism which I guess shouldn't surprise me. Highly recommend! (less)