A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova (Blogger Tour)

Earlier this year Elena Gorokhova had her memoir, A Mountain of Crumbs, published by Simon & Schuster Canada. This book chronicles the first part of her life, prior to her emigration to the United States. I was keen to read Gorokhova’s story as I have an strong interest in Russian life and Russian literature. This memoir was yet another way to gain a peek into what it is like to come of age in a country that is, for me, cloaked in intrigue and even a little bit of mystery.

Owing much to late author, Frank McCourt, whose memoir-writing class Gorokhova attended at the South Hampton Writers Conference, she acknowledges his influence in the epilogue of her memoir. She says, “I owe the voice of this memoir to Frank McCourt, who taught me to look for the “hot spots,” those defining moments in life when something significant happens, and to dig deeply into the past. He compared memoir writing to walking on the beach: you can look at the surface of things, or you can take a metal detector, wait for it to beep, and go for the gold that’s deep inside. If you are thinking of writing a memoir, think of the hot spots in your life, arm yourself with a metal detector, and dig for the gold.”

I feel that Gorokhova really took this advice from McCourt to heart as she is very blunt in conveying her life, growing up in Leningrad. This bluntness is apparent in Gorokhova’s willingness to share not only the minutiae of day-to-day life, but the bigger and defining moments as well. Gorokhova came of age during the time between Nikita Khruschev’s Cold War “thaw” and Mikhail Gorbachev’s time of perestroika. While there is a directness in her writing, there is also a very engaging quality in Gorokhova’s voice that compels the reader forward.

Anneliese Grosfeld, marketing assitant at Simon & Schuster Canada, has been helping coordinate a blogger tour for Elena Gorokhova. I am fortunate to be included on this tour and I welcome Elena to my blog. She was gracious enough to answer some questions I had for her, upon finishing reading her book. Below follows our exchange:

Question: What was it that prompted you to write this memoir? (Put another way: Prior to taking the workshop taught by Frank McCourt, why did you have such a strong urge to share your story?) How long did it take you, from the time you began writing your story until the time your memoir was published?

Answer: I think I wrote this memoir to exorcise my demons. Chekhov once said, “If you are able not to write, don’t.” I wasn’t able not to write, I suppose, and over the years I kept writing bits and pieces about my life in Russia. The book came out in hardcover in 2010. My first published story, which later, in a revised form, became a chapter in the memoir, appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review in 1996. Does this mean it took me over 15 years to write this book? It is a depressing thought, especially considering the fact that I’m now in the initial stages of writing a second book.

Question: The “voice” of your memoir is very matter-of-fact, even without emotion, in some instances. Is this the result of your Russian upbringing and, if so, what is about the Motherland that creeps into Russian lives to create this sort of demeanor or disposition? It appears there is a lack of hope. Were people raised to not consider the idea of hopes and dreams and that to do so is foolhardy? (Trying to understand more fully this idea you presented of “vranyo”.)

Answer: I think it is the opposite: people in Soviet Russia were raised exclusively on hopes and dreams of the approaching bright future of mankind and the decay and eventual death of capitalism. The problem was that those hopes and dreams, shoved down our throats since nursery school, were phony because they were based on lies. We weren’t living in the best country in the world, by any standard. The stores were getting emptier as the radio announced the biggest ever harvests of every crop; slogans hailed our respect for human dignity and human rights as censors banned every book that so much as hinted at the tens of millions who had disappeared into the Stalin’s camps of GULAG. My generation, born after Stalin’s death, was much less enthusiastic than my mother’s. Many of us were disillusioned and cynical, living the life of vranyo, or pretending: we knew the government lied to us but in order to survive we pretended – with the half of our souls that we let the outside see – to believe it.

Question: What do you think your mother managed to convey (during your upbringing) to you and your sister that would attribute to both of you achieving a different form of escape?

Answer: My mother was a great believer in the Soviet dream, and maybe it was that disconnect between what she preached to us and what we saw in real life that made both my sister and me look for an escape. Our adopting our mother’s enthusiasm, misdirected as it was, still gave us the strength to search for a better life.

Question: Has there been any time when you have had regret about leaving Russia?

Answer: I have nostalgic moments, like all immigrants – remembering my courtyard, my apartment’s smells of cooking, my friends – seeing my childhood through the rosy glasses of time. But I have never regretted leaving Russia.

Question: Has your nature or personality changed at all since moving to the United States? If so, would you share an example of how your move to America has affected you?

Answer: It was a happy discovery for me, after I came to the U.S., that hopes and dreams can be real and that they can be reached. It was good to feel less cynical, to see that public institutions are truly public, to see that if you vote in elections your candidate could win. It felt good to be among people who didn’t snarl at you, didn’t try to humiliate you, didn’t need to compete with you for a bottle of ketchup or a pair of tights. But the damage from being brought up in an insane, paranoid state remains. No matter how American I may become, it will always remain, I’m afraid.

Question: I am sure you have been asked this next question more times than you can count but, do you plan to write a follow-up to this memoir, covering your early years in America?

Answer: I’m working on my second memoir, my life in America. It’s still too early to tell what it will be, but it has to tackle the questions you’ve asked earlier, I think. So I’m so glad you asked them!

Question: In reading the section where you attempt to decipher the idea of privacy, I was really transfixed by this lack – both in words and in practice – within Russia. Was the concept of privacy – the availability of privacy – hard to adjust to, once you were living in the U.S.?

Answer: Privacy, as with all good things, was very easy to adjust to. (It is a lack of privacy, I think, that is so hard to get used to.) I always knew the concept of privacy from the few Western books that reached us, but living in the West has given it a name and a deeper understanding.

Continue reading

Upcoming Reviews On the Horizon

Wow it has been a busy early spring. I have fallen quite behind with my Literal Life postings but wanted to take some times to post a list of the novels I have read and will be reviewing here very soon.

I have been busy in my reading, owing to two factors (not including the general state of bibliophilia that encompasses me, that is) : a) the acquisition of a Sony Reader in early February and, b) participation in the HarperCollins Canada 50 Book Pledge. The pledge is not too much of a stretch for me; I read nearly 70 books in 2010. I don’t put too much pressure on myself or get stressed about reading MORE, but between reading for work and reading for pleasure (though, to be fair, it is all rather pleasurable), I go through a sizable stack of books each year. Having an electronic reader, though, has really amped up the reading. In Particular, I have been enjoying borrowing ebooks from the Toronto Public Library. It is so efficient!

Alright, without further ado, here is the list of upcoming reviews:

* My Dear I Wanted To Tell You by Louisa Young
* Good To A Fault by Marina Endicott
* Benevolence by Cynthia Holz
* A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova
* Lyrics Alley by Leila Aboulela
* The Keeper of Lost Causes By Jussi Adler-Olsen
* The Infinities by John Banville
* The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Muhkerjee
* The Immortal Life if Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
* Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
* War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
* Slash by Slash
* Life by Keith Richards
* A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates
* Set This House in Order by Matt Ruff
* Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark
* Breath by Tim Winton
* Galore by Michael Crummey
* The Leopard and Nemesis by Jo Nesbø

The Gin Closet by Leslie Jamison

The Gin Closet is the debut novel of Leslie Jamison. I have a particular interest in ‘first novels’. I want to know, or at least try to discover through reading them, what it was about a a given ‘first’ book that grabbed a publisher’s attention and made it to market. Usually I can find good reasons in compelling stories. Sometimes, admittedly, I am left scratching my head and wondering how, HOW a story ever made it through the publishing process. Occasionally I am blown away by potent talent. Leslie Jamison is a potent talent.The Gin Closet is the strongest debut novel I have ever read; it has been with me daily since I finished reading the novel two weeks ago. I am left wondering what Jamison could possibly do next but, in the mean time, I am awed by her writing and have absorb her characters as though they were wayward, delicate children needing a place of safety and protection.

I share with you the publisher’s description for this novel:

In the beginning, there was Tilly: fabulous and free, outrageous and untamable, vulnerable and terrified. Was it the Sixties that did her wrong, or the drugs, or the men, or was it the middle-class upbringing she couldn’t abide? As a young woman, she flees home for the hollow neon underworld of Nevada, looking for pure souls and finding nothing but bad habits. She stays away for decades, working the streets and worse, eventually drinking herself to the brink of death in the middle of the desert. One day, after Tilly has spent nearly thirty years without a family, her niece shows up on the doorstep of her dusty trailer.

Stella has been leading her own life of empty promise in New York City. She makes her living booking Botox appointments and national-media appearances for a famous (and famously neurotic) “inspirational” writer by day; she complains about her job at warehouse parties in remote boroughs by night; she waits for her married lover to make time in his schedule to screw her over, softly; and she takes care of her ailing grandmother in Connecticut. Before Stella’s grandmother dies, she tells Stella the truth about Tilly, her runaway daughter, and Stella decides to give up the vast and penetrating loneliness of the city to find this lost woman the family had never mentioned.

The Gin Closet unravels the strange and powerful intimacy that forms between Tilly and Stella as they move to San Francisco to make a home with Abe, Tilly’s overworked and elusive son. Shifting between the perspectives of both women, the narrative documents the construction of a fragile triangle that eventually breaks under its own weight.

With an uncanny ear for dialogue and a witty, unflinching candor about sex, love, and power, Leslie Jamison reminds us that no matter how unexpected its turns are, this life we’re given is all we have: the cruelties that unhinge us, the beauties that clarify us, the addictions that deform us, those fleeting possibilities of grace that fade as quickly as they come. In the words of writer Charles D’Ambrosio, this extraordinary novel teaches us that “history has its way, the body has its way, and the rebellions we believe in leave behind a bleak wisdom, if we’re lucky — and defeat, if we’re not.” The Gin Closet marks the debut of a stunning new talent in fiction.

A friend inquired as to whether the book was good – it is; very, very good – but I feel as though there are not sufficient words to express, in a review, my thoughts about the story or the writer. I need to invent new words to do this novel justice. The book is urgent and raw, and without requesting the readers sympathy, it demands of the reader to be a sentient human being. That Jamison, in this, her first novel (I can’t emphasize this enough apparently), can create and sustain these senses – of urgency, of compassion, of exposed nerves – is to be commended. Her writing elevates the story from being ‘another story about a disjointed and struggling family’ to being something wholly new. Jamison has given readers a work that is heart-achingly beautiful.