Andrei Strizek

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The story of a Soviet emigrant

I’ve been thinking for a week now about what to write about A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka. I came at it from several different angles. I found myself writing a few mangled sentences, deleting them, and starting over. Then I realized that I can’t really say much about this book, because I didn’t care for the book that much. The way I feel writing about it is the same as I felt while reading it: it’s a struggle, only at times enjoyable, and frankly, it didn’t have a lot to say. Finally I gave up trying to make things work. What you see below is what you get. I didn’t want to spend any more time with this book; it’s past time to move on.

A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka is the memoir of Lev Golinkin and his childhood as a Soviet Jew in Ukraine and his emigration to the United States. There is also an unexpected story of personal redemption towards the end. That twist to the tale came about so suddenly in the narrative, so unexpectedly, that it almost felt as if he was told he needed to write a conclusion ten minutes before the book went to press.

My family emigrated from Belarus in the early 1900s, before the revolution and the start of Soviet rule, though we still have some distant cousins who live there. I was drawn to this book because of my family’s history to the western Soviet states, and maybe that is a reason why I wanted more: while there was quite a bit of history of the Soviet Union and tales about the horrors of the Soviet government, they were presented from a decidedly - and understandably - biased point of view. I can’t blame Golinkin for writing about the Soviet Union in the way that he did, but he got a little heavy-handed at time. Personally, I would have appreciated a little more objectivity in his handling of these histories; let his own stories ring true and personal, let the history show less bias.

I was also surprised at the story of personal redemption that appeared towards the end. It was unexpected, and honestly I did not care too much about it. Golinkin seems like a likable person, yes, but I felt that a lot of his story was meant to draw pity out from the reader. Many of the good memoirs I’ve read have lessons that can be transferred to others. Here, I didn’t get that. I felt that Golinkin’s story was his own. The lessons he learned were his own. The story has a sort of importance to it - but don’t all stories? Here, I’m not sure what we can glean from his tale of struggle and acceptance.

Sometimes there are books that aren’t right for the time or for the person. Usually I’m good about giving up on a book if I can’t get through it (I just set down The Maze Runner because it is not the right time to read that book). For some reason I kept reading A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka when I should have set it aside. That obviously colored my opinion of it, and did not make the book any easier to write about. Well, they can’t all be winners. I’m sorry that thinking about this book any more makes me crabby. I didn’t hate it, but I’m glad I’m finished with it.

My first encounter with Murakami

I’ve never read anything by Haruki Murakami before this novella, not for any real particular reason other than perhaps that not many of my friends have talked about him, so I never felt a strong pull to pick up one of his books. Well, that, and probably the length of his novels subconsciously forced me away from his books. So when I saw The Strange Library near the cash register at Tattered Cover over Christmastime, I grabbed it, figuring there wouldn’t be any time like the present to check out Murakami and his “magical realism.”

I don’t know what “magical realism” means, exactly, other than that’s how Amazon labels Murakami’s writing. But it seems fitting for this story. We come into the life of an unnamed protagonist as he stops by the local library after school to return some books. Immediately we see that this is an unusual place, for when he asks to check out more books he is told to go “turn right at the bottom of the stairs Go straight down the corridor to Room 107.” I, for one, would have turned and gone the other direction. Our hero, though, only comments that he never knew the library had a basement.

The new moon will shape our destinies.

The nameless, ageless narrator (all we know is that he is a “child” and that he is in school; his obvious attachment to his mother hints at him being young, but throughout we get impressions that, while he may be young, he is mature for his age) requests some books about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire (a strange topic if there ever was one). From there we enter the world of “magical realism”: A jail cell, a mysterious girl who drifts between the real-world and the book-world, a man in sheep’s clothing (“it was real sheepskin, and covered every inch of the sheep man’s body … there was a short tail attached to the back of the sheep man’s outfit that bounced from side to side with each step, like a pendulum”), and a man who is so old that he could likely be past his time here on earth. A brief and odd - and, at times, disconcerting - tale unwinds. It's full of short, crisp sentences that hide and reveal more than one could think. The story is possibly warning us of the perils of capitalism or modernism, or of the dangers of authoritarianism. Or, it’s just a surreal tale; a story that is just meant to be a story and not an allegory. As this was my first encounter with Murakami, I’m not sure exactly what to make of it. (The tale has been spinning back and forth in my mind for almost a week now.) But I do know that I enjoyed the novella, and that his recent books (IQ84 and Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage) have been added to my reading lists.

When you start reading it, it doesn’t seem all that complicated. But the further you get into it, the more complex it becomes in this stealth kind of way, and you become really invested. I find this minimalist maximalist quality very engaging.
— Chip Kidd

A note about the design: this publication has art design by Chip Kidd. “Illustrated by” is the not the word to use, for Kidd’s artwork is more of the collage type and is influenced by impressions of the story at hand. His artwork adds to the tale but is not distracting; the surreal nature impacted me as I was reading the story and improves the overall package. (It also helps justify the $18 cover price.) There were a few pages where I definitely took pause to further absorb the design. There was recently an article in the New Yorker about Kidd’s work on this novella; I encourage you to read it.

The world follows its own course. Each possesses his own thoughts, each treads his own path. So it is with your mother, and so it is with your starling. As it is with everyone. The world follows its own course.

It won’t take you very long to read The Strange Library. I think I finished it in an hour or two, stretched out over the course of two rides on the Long Island Rail Road. I actually read it a second time, after about a week, to pick up on new things that I missed the first time. My guess is that if you like Murakami you’ll enjoy this, and if you're like me and you’ve never read him before, this is an excellent place to start.

"Gracefully" starting off the New Year

Well, the first book I finished reading in 2015 was one I never would have expected - actually, it's a book I wasn't aware of until about 5pm on New Year's Day: Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky. I saw the book in the young adult section while shopping at Target, and the premise intrigued me enough to purchase the book and start reading it almost immediately. It seems that most "YA" books fall under the heading of either dystopia or romance with a tragic twist. Gracefully Grayson doesn't fit into either category.

Gracefully Grayson centers on a 6th grader who is slowly coming to the realization that she is trans*. At first I thought the book was a little heavy-handing, bringing up all of these things to make us look at Grayson with a certain amount of pity, to see all these horrible things that have happened to her, to create an immediate sympathetic character. But, while many of those things were important to the discovery of Grayson (our discovery and her discovery), they ended up being less-central to the plot and character development than perhaps initially implied.

We follow Grayson as she works her way through 6th grade, trying out for the spring play (based on the Greek mythological tale of Persephone - an apt metaphor that at times seems reminiscent of some lyrics on Hedwig and the Angry Inch), making new friends and seeing others fade away, and working out who she is. We don't end with a strong conclusion, but that's okay. Grayson is only a 6th grader; she has much more time to learn about herself (don't we all!), and ending conclusively would be misleading. One thing I appreciated about the novel is that it's pretty straight-forward and not polemical in the least.

This is Ms. Polonsky's first novel, and while I wouldn't put it on the same level with some other "YA" books I've read recently, it's a strong first-outing. I hope she continues to write, and I hope that her books continue to give voice to those who need to be heard.

I Finally Did It

Well, I finally read The Great Gatsby. Yes, I was one of those who somehow made it out of high school and undergrad without having to read it for an English class. And, though I consider myself an avid reader, this one never came across my path - especially weird when you consider that it's one of my dad's favorite novels and he reads it every year. I never even read it amidst all the hype of the recent Leo movie. Not only did I make it 33 years without reading The Great Gatsby, I also made it this long without really knowing anything about the book, other than it was set in the 1920s, had something to do with the excesses of that time period, and that there was a green light.

But, I finally did it. And I enjoyed it!

Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.

Some people say that it's an overrated book; some people say that it's one of the best books of the 20th century. I think I'm somewhere in-between, but I do think it's a very superb book. I'm looking forward to reading Maureen Corrigan's book in the near future.

Sometimes I really mark up a book when I read it; with nonfiction, it's typically because there's something important to note, or I have a note to write in the margins. With nonfiction, it's because there's a good quote or, as was frequently the case with The Great Gatsby, it was because I loved the sound of the writing so much.

It baffles me that this book was not popular when it was first published; that Fitzgerald died thinking it was a flop, a failure. This isn't because the book is so widely read today, but because it was such a good book. Did people in the 1920s not want to read a critique of high society? Did the people in the 1930s not want to read about the excesses that helped lead to the Great Depression? I'm not sure; but if I could go back in time, I would want to make sure that Fitzgerald knew he wrote a superb novel, and one that seems to be standing the test of time very well.

There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired.

I'm not sure what else I can say about this book that hasn't already been said. It was a great tragic novel. How the movies and opera work, I'm not sure (but I am more curious now to check them out). I'm sure that my dad is happy with me, and that somewhere my mom's dad - who was an English professor - is also smiling because I finally read one of the Great American Novels.

‘Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead.’

An "Absolutely True Diary"

Every book is a mystery. And if you read all the books ever written, it’s like you’ve read one giant mystery. And no matter how much you learn, you just keep on learning there is so much more you need to learn.

I've been wanting to read Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for quite a while; I finally bought it last week in Spokane, at Auntie's Bookstore, and promptly dove into reading it. (The big display for Alexie's books, him being a local author, likely helped drive my impulse to buy it this week.)

It might be a "young adult" novel, but as far as I'm concerned, it is a story worth reading by anyone of any age. It's a first-person account of a teenage boy who lives on the Spokane Indian reservation who jumps as the chance to "escape" by going to school in a small white town, about 20 miles away.

Through his witty and geeky manner of speech - that drips with self-deprivation - as well as his drawings and sketches (drawn by Ellen Forney), we learn a lot about what life is like on an Indian reservation and what it's like to live in poverty:

"We reservation Indians don't get to realize our dreams. We don't get those chances. Or choices. We're just poor. That's all we are ... Poverty doesn't give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor."

We journey with Junior over the course of the school year, as he fights with his best friend, tries to fit in with the white culture, and other tribulations of his year. Yet, through the entire story, Junior never gets too depressed. He never seems to lose sight of his goals or dreams, and he still has a grasp on reality, too.

The book is full of aphorisms worth noting:

"If you let people into your life a little bit, they can be pretty damn amazing."
"I used to think the world was broken down by tribes. By black and white. By Indian and white. But I know that isn't true. The world is only broken into two tribes: The people who are assholes and the people who are not."
"Life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community."

A great - and pretty quick - read. Perfect for when you're home over the holidays.

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