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.

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