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A Mountain of Crumbs: A Memoir Paperback – February 8, 2011

4.3 out of 5 stars 123 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Growing up during the cold war in Leningrad, Ellen gets in trouble for not following the rules, and her wry, present-tense narrative, both comic and anguished, is not about political intrigues but about the daily detail of her struggle at home and at school. Of course, the government parallels are always there. As her overbearing, protective mother explains, the official rules are simple: “they lie to us, we know they’re lying, they know we know . . .” Within the very specific context of the cold war Soviet Union, Gorokhova effectively dramatizes universal teen conflicts. Are duty and personal happiness always mutually exclusive? Or can it be true what Ellen’s aunt says: you can be useful and still care for the beauty of your nails. Eventually Ellen marries an American to get out, and looking back now from her home in New Jersey, her dual perspective is at the heart of the drama, ironic but never cold or simple. There is no word for privacy in Russian, but there is one for isolation. --Hazel Rochman --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Elena Gorokhova has written the Russian equivalent of Angela's Ashes, an intimate story of growing up into young womanhood told with equal grace and humor." -- Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate

"What is it about A Mountain of Crumbs that makes it so damn readable? Is it the setting -- the Soviet Union in the second half of the last century on the verge of disintegration? Is it the author's way with the English language? This is a rich experience -- a personal journey paralleled by huge national changes and ending in a deeply satisfying portrait of peace in America. Those who have traveled from another place to America will find themselves in this rich memoir." -- Frank McCourt, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angela's Ashes

"An honest, captivating story of a girl from a middle-class Soviet family, growing into a young woman, searching for her identity and unable to find it...In the spirit of Dostoyevsky, it is also an endlessly Russian quest for self-redemption...I advise you to read the book. It will give you pleasure." -- Sergei Khruschchev, son of former Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev

"The story of a young person of sparkling intelligence, full of curiosity about the world, struggling to grow and blossom under a duplicitous, censorious, and unremittingly mean-minded social system. Elena Gorokhova conveys all the ugliness of daily life in Soviet Russia, as well as its humiliations, but is awake to its strangled, submerged poetry too. An enthralling read." -- J. M. Coetzee, winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature and author of Summertime

“[An] exquisitely wrought, tender memoir of growing up in the Soviet Union. . . . A Mountain of Crumbs could be taught as a master class in memoir writing. . . Gorokhova writes about her life with a novelist’s gift for threading motives around the heart of a story . . . Each chapter distills a new revelation in poetic prose . . . This moving memoir made me cry . . . Powerful.”
—Elena Lappin, The New York Times Book Review

“A Mountain of Crumbs vividly, devastatingly conveys what it was like growing up in the shabby disillusion of the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union—and also swooningly indulges the nostalgia for place and landscape that’s seemingly steeped into every Russian soul. . . . Marvelous reminiscence.”
—Ben Dickinson, Elle

"Elena Gorokhova has written an endearing, sensitive story of her early years in the USSR. Her memoir is proof that the human spirit can triumph even in the most repressive of times." -- Edward Hower, author of The New Life Hotel and The Storms of May

"A Mountain of Crumbs is an extraordinary memoir. Elena Gorokhova's writing -- gorgeous and evocative -- is enriched by her connection to two languages, Russian and English. Brilliant and moving." -- Ursula Hegi, author of Stones from the River

"This is a diamond of a memoir. Elena Gorokhova captures the essence of a vanished world with a poet's eye, taking the reader on an unforgettable journey, where every detail transcends the commonplace and every page bears witness to the deepest longings of the human heart. This memoir offers a rare glimpse of life in the former Soviet Union, and also of the universal search for love and autonomy that binds us all together, regardless of time and place." -- Carlos Eire, author of Waiting for Snow in Havana

"Almost painful in its authenticity, this hypnotically readable memoir has the sweep and power of a great Russian novel." -- Bruce Jay Friedman, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and author of A Father's Kisses and Stern

" An instant classic...[A] deeply affecting memoir . . . recalled with spare, lyrical beauty and wry humor.”
—Carmela Ciuraru, More

“A smart, spirited tale about growing up in the colorless Soviet Union of the 1960s.”

“Elena Gorokhova doesn't use broad strokes to paint a picture of daily life in Brezhnev-era Soviet Union. Vivid memories . . . brightly dot the harsh, gray background of everyday life in Gorokhova's native Leningrad. . . . Her spare lyricism delicately captures a vanished world.”
— Korina Lopez, USA Today

“[L]eavened with wistful humor . . . This memoir offers valuable insight into those bleak years bracketed by Khrushchev and Afghanistan . . . [R]endered with sharp detail . . . Gorokhova is attuned to the inherent absurdities of a society that, while aspiring to a supposedly common ideal  . . . cannot care for its citizens on the most rudimentary level.”
—Alexander Nazaryan, Christian Science Monitor

“Gorokhova’s engaging, beautifully written memoir depicts her childhood in 1960s Leningrad and her restless dissatisfaction with life behind the Iron Curtain.”
—Donna Marchetti, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

“[A Mountain of Crumbs is] as sweet and earthy as sugar and brown bread. It's a mesmerizing story of an intelligent, adventurous, curious girl and a country with a rich past and lumbering social constraints, both finding the way to a new future.”
—Peggy McMullen, The Oregonian

“Endearing, a collection of well-sculptured memories . . . Lovely . . . Evocative . . . A minor-key coming-of-age story.”
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“Gorokhova has the reader in the palms of her hands. . . . Stellar . . . This compelling and unusual tale . . . is inherently captivating.”
—Christine Thomas, The Miami Herald

“[A] witty, illuminating book . . . with telling detail, and a winning balance of affection, insight and satiric bite.”
—Misha Berson, The Seattle Times

“Elena Gorokhova reveals with beautiful writing the panic of growing up inside the secrecy of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. . . . Even if Elena Gorokhova weren’t such a gorgeous writer, her memoir, “A Mountain of Crumbs,” would be a terrific read. . . . 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.”
—Laurie Hertzel, The Star-Tribune (Minneapolis-St. Paul)

“A moving memoir about one woman’s journey from the Soviet Union . . . Captivating.” (The Daily Beast)

“Artful memoir about the angst and joys of growing up behind the Iron Curtain. . . . Articulate, touching and hopeful.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Extraordinarily rich in sensory and emotional detail . . . An engrossing portrait of a very lively, intelligent girl coming of emotional and intellectual age in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union.”

“Wry . . . both comic and anguished . . . but never cold or simple.”

“Three pages into this beautifully crafted memoir and you know that Gorokhova has always been a writer. . . . the kind that envelops and transports you and every so often leaves you breathless. . . . Recounted in shimmering detail.”

—Bill Ervolino, The Bergen Record (New Jersey)

Gorokhova has the reader in the palms of her hands. . . . Stellar . . . This compelling and unusual tale . . . is inherently captivating.”
—Christine Thomas, The Miami Herald

“Exquisitely lyrical . . . Every page of Elena Gorokhova s coming-of-age-in-the-Soviet-bloc memoir unveils the magic of her origins. . . . Stunning.”
—Anne Grant, Providence Journal-Bulletin (RI)

“A dream ride . . . A delight . . . with pitch-perfect lyricism, tremendous power of recall, and disarming wit.”
—Kapka Kassabova, The Guardian (UK)

A Mountain of Crumbs is . . . a stunning memoir: subtle, yet brimming with depth and detail.”
—Viv Groskop, The Daily Telegraph (UK)

“Brims with an elegiac emotion and sensuality which even Turgenev, in his own European exile, might have envied.”
—Charlotte Hobson, The Spectator (UK)

“Remarkable . . . beautiful and evocative and worth your attention.”
—Nathan Thornburgh, DadWagon.com

“Her richly detailed story explores the reality of her politically subversive passions for language and freedom in a fearful, failing society that distrusted its citizens and repressed individuality.”
Saga (UK)

“Gorokhova is a lush and beautiful writer. Her tidy, witty descriptions of characters keep the book moving along at a good clip . . . the rich political milieu of the former Soviet Union sets this book apart. You really do get the feeling of what it smelled, tasted and felt like to grow up in that particular place and time.
— Ellen Silva, senior editor, NPR’s All Things Considered

“An exquisitely moving memoir detailing Gorokhova’s experiences of growing up behind the Iron Curtain. Her story of oppression and hope is described in distinctive poetical prose.”
Marie Claire (UK)

“Despite the specificity of the memoir, the themes and characters have universality - a domineering mother, a rebellious child, finding passion and beauty in surprising places. A celebration of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity and oppression.”
Easy Living (UK)

“Combining Gorokhova’s fantastic eye for an image with her acute sense for the absurd, A Mountain of Crumbs elegantly dramatizes the bewildering chasm between the projected, glittering idealism of the Soviet Union and its drab, quotidian reality.”
—Claire Allfree, Metro (UK)

“In this gently delightful memoir, Elena Gorokhova recounts her coming of age in Russia during 1960s and 1970s . . . There’s a wonderful cozy intimacy to her writing; her use of the present tense keeps it fresh and unburdened . . . I loved reading A Mountain of Crumbs. Gorokhova is a fine writer with a delicate, sensitive touch, whose voice in nonetheless fearless and clarion. I hope there’s a sequel. After coming of age comes surely that other great memoir, coming to America.”

—Wendell Steavenson, The Sunday Times (UK)

“It takes talent to write a good memoir and Gorokhova has more than most. Fascinating anecdotes show us her mother’s youth, and her own recollections spring to life with an artist’s eye for those details that can conjure a mood or a moment. The privations, oppressions and joys are all described with shining curiosity in this captivating book.”
Waterstone’s Books Quarterly

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (February 8, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1439125686
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439125687
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (123 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #222,210 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Mr. Joe TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 12, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
"I think of my mother, the one in the portrait her brother painted before he died (in the Great Patriotic War) ... But what is it that wiped the smile off her face and dimmed the luster in her eyes? Was it the war, the wayward husbands, the two dead brothers? Or did it happen later, when my father got sick and needed a hospital and they refused to admit him? My mother knocked on the door of every party boss in Leningrad, until finally one issued an order to let him in for one week. A special ukaz ..." - Elena Gorokhova

"I think of the dream I had about (my father) when I was eight, in which he sat in his rowboat and spoke about theater, about the audience holding their breath and growing silent the moment before the curtain is about to go up. The anticipation of magic, he called it, the expectation of illusion. The moment when the noise stops. The moment when you're no longer ordinary." - Elena Gorokhova

Elena Gorokhova was born in 1955 in Leningrad (before and after the Soviet era, St. Petersburg) of a physician mother and her third husband, a Communist Party apparatchik. At twenty-four, Elena immigrated to the United States. In 2008, she wrote A MOUNTAIN OF CRUMBS, an account of her life from age five to her emigration from the Motherland.

Skipping through the years of her life in Leningrad a year or two at a time, Gorokhova's chronicle includes such experiences more or less unique to a Soviet (as opposed to an American) citizen: her induction into the Young Pioneers, hunting for mushrooms in the forest, lengthy store queues for basic foodstuffs, serving as a Leningrad tour guide, restrictions against unsanctioned contact with foreigners, vacationing with peers on the Crimean seashore, and teaching Russian to American exchange students at Leningrad University.
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Of all personal accounts I've read recently, this is by far one of the best. In July 1979, the year the author emigrated, I visited the Soviet Union. That year, eight of my distant Leningrad cousins also emigrated, each allocated 200 kilos of possessions, 92 rubles and wedding rings, their only valuables. I can relate.

Gorokhova's poetic descriptions of Russian oppression reverberates mightily for me. I witnessed and sensed it first hand. In three weeks of visits to Moscow, Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa and Leningrad, we met some family so frightened they refused to speak English on city streets and received us silently until they'd shuttered apartment windows and barricaded their doors. The atmosphere in Odessa and Kharkov were particularly harsh. Apartments were one, two or three rooms, at most, for even the largest multi-generational families.

We knew the feasts served to us either cost several months' wages (on the black market) or endless hours in lines --- unknowingly waiting for "something worth buying" at the end. Black market dealers approached us in quiet spots near Red Square, the Odessa steps, Kiev's monument of heroes and Leningrad's Nevsky Prospect. Lines, often two abreast, wound around corners or into the next block in every city. We waited ourselves a few times to experience what ordinary Russians suffered to buy most everything. The result was usually a hand of bananas, bag of oranges or toilet paper --- provided the items weren't sold out upon reaching the line's end. Department store shelves were virtually naked but for odd-sized or grotesquely colored underwear no one wanted or bought.
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Nyet huda bez dobra - There is no evil without good. Ms. Ghorokhova's memoir can be summed up in that single pithy line. But oh, what that summary would leave out! I loved reading A Mountain of Crumbs; though written by a non-native English speaker, she is so facile with the language, has such a perfect ear for the funny, or poetic, or heartbreaking turn of phrase - she had no trouble getting those words down. Her family, friends, and colleagues practically leap from the pages in startling clarity. Told with a true storyteller's sense of timing, the book was as engrossing and suspense-filled as any novel worth its salt, and all the more intriguing because it's a memoir of a time and place that is 360 degrees from the lives many (American) readers of the current generation live. Ms. Ghorokhova writes with somber precision and large compassion, capturing small details with which she paints the Big Picture. I would totally recommend this for high-schoolers as well as adult readers.
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I loved this book! I have a very good friend who was born in the former Soviet Union & emigrated to the U.S. as a child, so I was drawn to the subject matter, wanting a better understanding of his early upbringing. This memoir did not disappoint - far from it. Beautifully written and a compelling read, I devoured it within one 24-hour period, only putting it down to get some sleep overnight.

The author does a very admirable job sharing her innermost thoughts, dreams & fears while revealing a world that was so very different from the one I experienced while growing up in the U.S. The shortages, the struggles, the cynical "mind games" played with authority figures are all portrayed skillfully and poignantly. She has a genuine gift for storytelling and is an artful wordsmith - all the more impressive given that English is not her first language. This memoir read as well as the best of novels. Highly recommended - I hope Ms. Gorokhova writes another book, and soon!
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