Cover image for A backpack, a bear, and eight crates of vodka : a memoir
A backpack, a bear, and eight crates of vodka : a memoir
Golinkin, Lev, author.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Doubleday, 2014.
Physical Description:
ix, 307 pages ; 22 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


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Material Type
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Item Holds
E184.37.G655 A3 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Biography
E184.37.G655 A3 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Biography
E184.37.G655 A3 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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"[A] hilarious and heartbreaking story of a Jewish family's escape from oppression." -- The New York Times

A compelling story of two intertwined journeys: a Jewish refugee family fleeing persecution and a young man seeking to reclaim a shattered past. In the twilight of the Cold War (the late 1980s), nine-year old Lev Golinkin and his family cross the Soviet border with only ten suitcases, $600, and the vague promise of help awaiting in Vienna. Years later, Lev, now an American adult, sets out to retrace his family's long trek, locate the strangers who fought for his freedom, and in the process, gain a future by understanding his past.

Lev Golinkin's memoir is the vivid, darkly comic, and poignant story of a young boy in the confusing and often chilling final decade of the Soviet Union. It's also the story of Lev Golinkin, the American man who finally confronts his buried past by returning to Austria and Eastern Europe to track down the strangers who made his escape possible . . . and say thank you. Written with biting, acerbic wit and emotional honesty in the vein of Gary Shteyngart, Jonathan Safran Foer, and David Bezmozgis, Golinkin's search for personal identity set against the relentless currents of history is more than a memoir--it's a portrait of a lost era. This is a thrilling tale of escape and survival, a deeply personal look at the life of a Jewish child caught in the last gasp of the Soviet Union, and a provocative investigation into the power of hatred and the search for belonging. Lev Golinkin achieves an amazing feat--and it marks the debut of a fiercely intelligent, defiant, and unforgettable new voice.

Author Notes

Lev Golinkin is the author of A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka .  Mr. Golinkin, a graduate of Boston College, came to the US as a child refugee from the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkov (now called Kharkiv) in 1990.  His op-eds and essays on the Ukraine crisis have appeared in The New York Times , Los Angeles Times , The Boston Globe , and , among others; he has been interviewed by WSJ Live and HuffPost Live.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Golinkin was just a child during the tumultuous years of Soviet premier Gorbachev's introduction of glasnost and perestroika, yet his parents and grandmother remembered the worst of the USSR's restrictive, controlling atmosphere. Worse, the family members were zhid, Jewish. This atmospheric, touching memoir, whose chapters begin with dates and locations to orient the reader, follows the Golinkins as they escape the Soviet Union and land in America. Golinkin's early memories are touchingly true to those of a youngster, and he reports on his family members' fears, troubles, persistence, and patience with a keen eye and a memorable voice. Once in the U.S., ensconced near Purdue University the former-engineer father a clerk, the former-doctor mother a barista, and hopes for his sister's attending Purdue wavering Golinkin muses, Dignity, family, social status, or blood, one way or another, every immigrant pays the admission price to America, and the older they are, the steeper the fare. Years later, Golinkin finds and thanks the many people who helped his family and inspired him to help others as well. Eye-opening for those who come to the U.S. and for those who help them do so.--Kinney, Eloise Copyright 2014 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

In late 1989, an 11-year-old Golinkin and his family joined the Jewish diaspora from what would soon be the former Soviet Union. Despite having little connection to their Jewish heritage, the Golinkins had been harassed, bullied, and seen their prospects blocked due to their ethnicity. Their exile brought them first to Austria, where they developed an important friendship with a local baron whose father was an unrepentant Nazi. Soon after, they received asylum in the college town of West Lafayette, Ind. Decades later, Golinkin retraced his journey and interviewed the people who had made his escape possible. Golinkin convincingly portrays the miseries, and rare joys, of his bullied, furtive childhood, and the limits it put on him. As he takes on an American identity, he rejects every aspect of his previous life, from its language to a faith he barely knew, a rejection that includes his choice of colleges (he attended the Roman Catholic Boston College).Trauma and his attempts to deal with it give substance to his book, although Golinkin supplements his memories with interviews and research that add important context. While the narrative grows choppy at the end as it devolves into a series of postscripts, Golinkin has created a deeply moving account of fear and hope. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Author's Notep. ix
Prologuep. 1
Part 1 The Best Parades in the Whole Damn Worldp. 7
The Black Witch Comes to Kharkovp. 18
Oleg and the Mirrorp. 27
Disarming the Adversariesp. 31
A Marked Mikhail Will Destroy Russiap. 38
Something Was Different; Something Was in the Airp. 48
Land of Endless Twilightp. 53
$130, Two Suitcases, One Piece of Jewelry, Nothing of Valuep. 63
Into the Steppep. 79
Part 2 Dozens of Sentinel Grandmasp. 103
Where People Have No Namesp. 121
The Foresterp. 131
Waking the Nomadsp. 144
Pennies and Peach Slicesp. 149
A Layover in Purgatoryp. 161
Evap. 168
A Bleak, Man-Made Horizonp. 173
Nineteen Million in the Holep. 179
The Bosnians Don't Come Out at Nightp. 183
A Simple Requestp. 190
Part 3 This Ain't Ellis Islandp. 201
Refugee Sponsorship for Dummiesp. 208
Where Else Does She Belong?p. 214
Unfinished Business, Part I; Getting to Americap. 222
Where the Weak Are Killed and Eatenp. 230
There Are No Cats in Americap. 242
Where Am I and Why Do I Smell Like Bananas?p. 249
Unfinished Business, Part II: Staying in Americap. 263
Aliciap. 269
One Man, One Jacketp. 275
Kilcoynep. 281
Epiloguep. 295
Acknowledgmentsp. 305