Just finished reading A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova. A textually-rich memoir of growing up in the Soviet Union in the Breshnev era, this is one I have absolutely no hesitation recommending. The author, my peer in age, learned to speak English starting at age ten, which ultimately led to her marrying an American in 1980 and leaving Russia behind.
She paints an unforgettable view of what was then called Leningrad, and is now known, again, as St. Petersburg, which was one of the cities we visited this month on our whirlwind tour of Batlic Sea capitals.
Given its setting, it was going to be my one take-along book on this trip. While we were in Philadelphia before leaving for Europe I decided not to carry any reading material except for guidebooks. Our desire to travel light meant concentrating, first, on our itinerary. Flying over and every night, I would do a little more research about the places we were headed to.
Plus, not surprisingly, I have a tendency to pick up a lot of “stuff” along the way (maps, brochures, newspapers, business cards, and odd-ball ephemera) and I’m the official keeper of the receipts on our journeys (so we have them if we need to verify amounts charged, where and when). Being gone for nearly a month meant I had to allow space for that eventual collection.
So leaving Elena’s book was a conscious decision, one I’m glad I made.
I’m fairly sure reading it before arriving there would have colored my impressions, strongly, and negatively.
And yet I’m so glad I had it to read right away when I returned stateside, as it is still percolating in my travel experience.
I know, now, exactly how well she captured specifics of St. Petersburg: the mammoth size of the granite columns of St. Isaac’s Cathedral; the way the bridges bend over the canals, each reflecting an individual personality; the glow of the Admiralty’s spire and church domes against leaden gray skies. Such detail gives me confidence that her memories are related as authentically.
If you grew up during the Cold War, pick it up. If you’re a woman with a complicated relationship with your mother, pick it up. If you want to understand how someone can emigrate and leave their old life behind, pick it up. If you want an inside view into a complicated society largely unknown to most Americans, pick it up.
Or if you just want to read a well-crafted coming of age story — well, that’s another reason to pick it up.