A Backpack, A Bear, and 8 Crates of Vodka by Lev Golinkin

Genre: Memoir
Secondary genre: Modern history
Format read: Audio
Content warnings: bullying, racist slurs
Rep: Ukranian/Russian, Jewish (racial), refugee, immigrant/1st gen American
Rating: planchet-4

In the 80s, the Russian government was in flux. After a period of anti-Jewish legislation, Mikhail Gorbachev open the borders briefly, allowing Jews and other “undesirable” people to flee. Among them was Lev Golinkin and his family: his parents, older sister, and grandmother.

Tracing his time growing up in what is now Ukraine, through their flight to Vienna and eventual immigration to the US, this book tells a heartbreaking story of the world as it existed around the time when I was born. Littered with humor, it’s an ultimately hopeful tale, but still makes us look at the world we live in today through a different lens. How much has changed since then? How have we really progressed? Are things better? These are questions Lev asks himself as an adult, returning to Vienna to interview the people who made his immigration possible.

As with most of the nonfiction I’ve read, it’s hard to summarize the story into something as short as a blog post without giving away the details. But it’s a wonderful book and one that I highly enjoyed listening to on my commute. If you are curious about the 1980s, international politics, immigration, or Eastern Europe, then this is a definite pick.

Bridge of Spies by Giles Whittell

Genre: modern history
Secondary genre: cold war, espionage
Format read: audiobook
Rating: planchet-4

Though the Cold War has been over for nearly a lifetime, the repercussions of that tense period in world history can still be felt. This book is the story of how a very bad spy and a man who wasn’t a spy but was accused of espionage anyway, and a pilot in the wrong place at the wrong time, wound up on a bridge on the edge of the iron curtain in a forgotten prisoner exchange that prevented the Cold War from turning hot.

This book tracks two sides of the same story up to the point where the finally converge on that isolated bridge.

While it started out somewhat slow for me, this book was a fascinating look at the politics of the time. I also can’t help but give points to the author for pointing out, practically on page one, that’s it’s essentially the story of privileged white men, most of whom were far more confident than their skills actually merited. As the book went on, however, things started to get more and more intense.

I don’t want to give away too much, since this is a work of nonfiction. If you want to look at the tensions between Russia and the US and where they started, then this would be a good choice for your TBR.