"A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka" by Lev Golinkin | Book Review

Genre: Memoir
Page Count: 307
First Published: November 4, 2014

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We are repeatedly told not to judge the book by its cover, and in most cases it's a very good piece of advice. However, there are occasional exceptions to this, and this book was such an exception for me. A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka by Lev Golinkin was a classic case of "cover buy": Lindsay and I were browsing the shelves at Barnes & Noble, and this book caught my eye. I was born in the Soviet Union, and most of my life was spent in what became Ukraine in 1991, so even just the title and cover of this book spoke to me. Imagine my reaction when the inside flap told me this was a memoir that had to do with emigration and finding yourself in a new environment. I had to read it.

I think the beautiful thing about A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka is that it will speak to almost anyone. Obviously, anybody who had to deal with emigrating from the Soviet Union in the '80s, or later from the former republics, will instantly connect with Lev's story. On the other hand, those who have not experienced moving from one country to another will find this book an eye-opening experience. And of course, anyone can relate to soul searching and worrying about what the future holds. Within its first pages, there is a phrase that defines this whole book:

... the one thing that finally sank into my head is that you can’t have a future if you don’t have a past.
— Lev Golinkin

The author comes back to this idea later, and it becomes more and more relevant the further you get into the story. Something else that I wanted to bring up is the concept of the language barrier and what it really means—something I don't think a lot of people consider when they talk to immigrants. The author talks about how people get impatient, or angry when someone from a different country is having trouble understanding them, and how frustrating and embarrassing this can get. Furthermore, the language barrier is something that not only keeps a person from getting professional employment, but also makes them feel like a lesser person, because none of what you knew or could express before is relevant:

You no longer have opinions. You don’t have jokes, or consolations, or conversations, or amusements, or experiences, or perspectives built over a lifetime. They’re useless, like you. How are you going to share them? With whom? You are an animal, mooing and mumbling and excuse me-ing your way through the smallest chore, the most inconsequential grocery store errand.
And that’s how the language barrier works.
— Lev Golinkin

There are so many quotes from this memoir that I wanted to write down and share, and so many things I related to. This book immediately hooked me, and it wasn't just because I knew EXACTLY what the author was talking about—it was the honest, unapologetic way the author spoke through his writing. There may have been things that I didn't agree with, but that didn't take away from how much I connected with and enjoyed this memoir. It made me sad, it made me angry, and it even made me inexplicably nostalgic a few times—it was a very emotional read for me. 

So, after all of this you may be wondering why I gave this memoir 4.5 instead of 5 stars. Well, the thing is there were a few details that bugged me. I'm not going to nitpick, since they aren't things that make a huge difference in the story, and unless you're familiar with the specifics you won't even notice them. Generally, I wrote them off to author's personal experience, and I still recommend this book to everyone. I loved it!

Have you heard of A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka?
What is the  best memoir you've read?

★★★★ ½