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A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir by Lev Golinkin

EightCratesBrowsing the shelves of new biographies, I was drawn to the cover of this memoir. It depicts a boy carrying a heavy backpack and a teddy bear, followed by his shadow with a hammer and scythe overlay. The boy is a young Lev Golinkin, the author of this book.  The image on the cover is a metaphor for Golinkin’s journey toward freedom as a state of being as well as a state of mind.

The memoir begins in 2003 (the culmination of Golinkin’s college days at Boston University), then switches seamlessly to  harrowing period between 1979 and 1990—the final decade of the Soviet Union--when Golinkin’s family applied for, and was finally granted, immigration to the United States. The book details the blatant antisemitism endured by Golinkin, his sister, and his parents-- from his routine beatings at school under the watchful eyes of his teachers to his sister’s denial into medical school. Golinkin’s early childhood experiences leave him with a deep self-loathing that continues well into his 20s. Only when the author returns to Europe to trace his family’s escape from the USSR and meets those who helped them does he come to terms with his past.

To quote Gal Beckerman of the The Wall Street Journal (December 18, 2014):

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…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.

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