New in paperback: 'A Mountain of Crumbs' and more

By Nora Krug
Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Elena Gorokhova had many compelling reasons for fleeing the Soviet Union in 1980, but the one that finally pushed her over the edge was rather mundane: "It has to do with my mother," she explains in her memoir, A Mountain of Crumbs (Simon & Schuster, $15). Mundane perhaps, but also loaded. Gorokhova's mother was, she writes, "a mirror image of my motherland: overbearing, protective, difficult to leave." A doctor and anatomy professor who married three times - in the first instance to a patient she met while trying, unsuccessfully, to remove shrapnel from his buttocks - her mother even waxed nostalgic about the Stalinist era. "She sheltered us from dangers, experience, and life itself by a tight embrace that left us innocent and gasping for air," Gorokhova writes. In her eloquent book, she offers a vivid illustration of the complex emotions involved in emerging from that kind of loving stranglehold.

Gorokhova, who now lives in New Jersey, came to the United States after marrying an American she wasn't sure she loved. (She has since remarried.) Her book chronicles the complicated journey that led to this point. It's a rich tale of life behind the Iron Curtain. Much of the story is set in what was then Leningrad, a city of contrasts: the home of "Pushkin and the tsars, of granite embankments and lace ironwork," where people stood in line for necessities like toilet paper and milk. Gorokhova prefers the romantic version of her city and all that it implies; by the eighth grade she had already become cynical about the Young Communist League she had to join to go to college. Her ticket out was the English language, which made it possible for her to communicate with American students like the man who became her first husband.

In 1988, Gorokhova's mother came to live with her in America, and the two have reached a kind of silent reconciliation. "We don't talk about such things as forgiveness, understanding, acceptance," Gorokhova writes. "But then, we are probably not the same people we were back in Russia."

From our previous reviews:

Jaron Lanier, a pioneer of virtual reality, takes on the world he helped create in You Are Not a Gadget (Vintage, $15), a "mind-bending, exuberant" polemic in which "he dares to say the forbidden: that computers as we know them may be incapable of truly representing human thoughts and relationships," according to Ellen Ullman.

Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook (Penguin, $16), a medical history of forensics told through the stories of New York's first chief medical examiner and his toxicologist, "is as thrilling as any 'CSI' episode, but it also offers something even better: an education in how forensics really works," according to Art Taylor.

Claire Harman examines the literary career of Jane Austen in Jane's Fame (Picador, $16), an "engaging history of the Austen phenomenon," from the author's early rejections to her newfound pop culture status, according to Dennis Drabelle.

Krug reviews paperbacks every month for The Post.

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