on January 17, 2014
This book took me by surprise. I started reading it on a Thursday night, commented to myself that I might not finish it because I generally can't read an entire book seemingly written in jest.*
On the next day, I continued reading while eating breakfast, didn't put away the dishes, and continued reading all day, putting everything else aside, until I was done.
I laughed and I cried. I cried throughout the last chapter and until I went to sleep.
Is that enough of a review? Perhaps.
A good book touches the reader. A good book either tells the reader something they do not know, or tells them something about themselves, or both.
*Ah, but then I realized this jest is not the snarky humor of many books these days. This humor is familiar and familial, and why? This book struck me to my core. Mr. Shteyngart and I have a few things in common, but they must run deep. I'm a fourth generation American Jew, but the humor and pathos at the heart of this book came so alive to me that I forgot my age, my gender, and that I didn't spend my first seven years in the Soviet Union. The cadence of the cutting remarks, the combination of suffocating love and open hostility, the expectations of both failure and great success. . .oh it was so achingly and heart breakingly familiar. I haven't the words to explain just what happened here as I read. I am not a writer, only an average reviewer. I thank Mr. Shteyngart for his words, bringing a pitch perfect rendering of coming of age in New York to life. I know no other honorific as fitting here as the Yiddish word mensch.
on January 16, 2014
I began this memoir and then began again. I couldn't understand what all the hype was about--first thinking that the author was a not- so- funny sterotypical Jew or maybe just a stand-up comedian. I see how wrong I intitially was!!
This memoir morphs into almost greatness!! Really. But, you have to get through the standard expected stuff to find the pony. ( From the old joke that "With all this s..t there has to be a pony in here somewhere.") The trenchant writing doesn't begin until Gary is almost in college half way through the book.
The author had an ostensibly ordinary immigrant life. Yes, the feelings of being an outsider magnified by being a Russian- not the most loved group in America of the eighties- are isolating. Yes, having parents who are cheap and don't "get" America is isolating. Yes, being an only child is tough-- with both parents stuggling workaholics-- and is further isolating. And on and on.. BUT, the clincher is that Gary's Father beat him consistently; and his Mother just stood by, ineffectual -- isolating him more. The only love Gary remembers from this time ( his childhood) is the "touch" of beatings. At least, he was being touched, he thinks.
The best part of this memoir details how the budding author used and abused people-- only caring for himself in the short run, abusing drugs and drink to the max, not being able to make a real connection, not able to love or be loved. Only desperately wanting love and not knowing what that is.
Receiving a lot of psychiatric help was his salvation. Finding true mentors ( Chang Rae Lee was one )and friends helped. Connecting with his flawed parents and with his genes helped. He's still mixed up, of course, but certainly more understanding of others and himself.
And, he's a very good writer! The words fly off the pages from his college years on-- into our hearts.
Four plus stars.
Having read two of Gary Shteyngart's three novels I am not surprised I liked his memoir. I am surprised though how much and how it resonated. The author's early writing reminds me of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones: raucous, and frenetic picaresque romps that excoriate cultural mores, social climbers as well as well as politics and power of all persuasions. Therefore it was with some trepidation I approached Little Failure. It is one thing to skewer the Russian mob, start-ups or upstart pretension; quite another to skewer mom and dad, without seeming to be an ungrateful Ahole. Happily, his memoir works really well. Shteyngart manages to be funny,poignant and unfailingly honest about his parents' and his own failings and importantly, their struggle together.
It would seem hard to raise a son more neurotic or disfunctional than that quintessential Jewish neurotic New Yorker, Woody Allen. Yet Mom and Pop Shtenyngart do so and then some. The recipe for their dubious success reads something like this: start with a son whose gut-wrenching asthma exacerbates your very worst fears for your only child. Toss in a heart-wrenching and culturally dislocating emigration that make you strangers in a strange land, and oh, yeah leave behind most of your mother's family. It is amidst this backdrop that the author recounts hilarious and painful memories: learning English but keeping Russian, attending Hebrew School but sort of despising it, having an accent then not, being a minority, but hating other minorities, and finally having parents who both adore and abuse you.
These two extremes are the crux or the heart of what's the matter in Little Failure. At one end of the gamut are parents who clearly love you. At the other is a father who smacks you around fairly regularly to vent his frustrations and failures. More complex is a mother who charges you for the chicken cutlets you eat, the lamps you break or refuses to speak to you for days and weeks when you disappoint or rebel. Plus you take on the role of mediator in their own unhappy marriage. What saves it from feeling as bad as it probably was is Shteyngart's compassion and his own very real affection for these difficult and damaged people.
The author understands that broken people can't help but raise broken children. When half your family is decimated by Hitler and the other half by Stalin, when you just escaped the Siege of Leningrad to later flee the USSR and start over at 40, life has been stacked up against you in formidable, essential ways. Shteyngart's clear-eyed look at his and his parents' experience and struggles is always tempered with this understanding and forgiveness. It seems not only authentically felt but deserved. That is why, long after the laughter has faded--and there is much to laugh at in Little Failure--what resonates is the abiding affection of this crazy, bizarre mishpucha.
on January 7, 2014
Gary Shteyngart's memoir, LITTLE FAILURE, is the first of his books I have read, although I have read numerous blurbs and reviews (mostly positive) of his second and third novels, Absurdistan: A Novel and Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel. The guy's stock-in-trade is obviously humor, a biting satirical sort of humor, and, if this memoir is any indication, one that does not spare those closest to him. And I know he's been pretty successful and his books have sold well, so maybe it's a generational thing, but I had trouble even liking this guy who can so freely poke cruel fun at his parents, particularly given the tremendous sacrifices they have made on behalf of their only child, sickly and asthmatic. The 'humor' is, in some cases, just too caustic and critical. Yes, he does make fun of himself too, but even so ...
While it's probably of interest only to me, I did take note of the fact that Shteyngart's family chose to leave the USSR right at the time that the Soviet military invaded Afghanistan, just before Christmas of 1979. If you had a son, it was a damn good time to get outa Dodge.
Shteyngart was only thirty-eight when he was writing this (maybe a bit young to be writing your memoirs) and the first half of the book seemed a bit slow and redundant, the humor often cutesy and forced. The second part of the book, puberty and beyond, first in Queens and then at Oberlin College, was much more interesting, although - maybe that generational thing again - I had trouble relating to his drunken stoner ways. The humor here became much darker and perhaps even self-destructive, as the author moaned about his despair of ever finding someone to love him, although he seemed to end up doing okay with women. Indeed, one affair he documents here, with 'Pamela Sanders,' with its intimations of somewhat sleazy, slumming sexual obsession, reminded me of Glen Savan's novel of that ilk, White Palace.
The guy can be funny, no question. But it's not my kind of humor and there seems to be just a little too much self pity and whining involved in telling of a life in which the real sacrifices were made by a pair of parents who made many difficult choices and did everything they could to do right by their son. Yeah, their thrifty immigrant ways, broken English and old-country habits may have seemed strange and embarrassing to him. But did they deserve being so often the butt of his jokes? I don't think so. Shteyngart is a good writer, especially considering English is not his first language. He has obviously long since overcome that barrier; has, in fact, mastered the language thing. Now he just needs to grow up. (three and a half stars)
- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER
Years before he graduated from our high school alma mater, I met the likes of Gary Shteyngart in the narrow hallways and staircases of that aging, decrepit high school building on East 15th Street; other Garys spending hours smoking pot and drinking beer in the adjoining park named Stuyvesant Square, holding forth on philosophical discussions ranging from Freudian psychoanalysis to a potential nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Yet none ever wrote memorable prose as graceful or as hilarious as his, blessed with ample wit, sensitivity and observation. Nor can I think of any published former student of acclaimed memoirist Frank McCourt - who had retired from teaching English and creative writing the semester before Shteyngart's arrival - writing anything as outrageously funny about their Stuyvesant High School years as he has done in "Little Failure: A Memoir". (His terse description of earth science teacher John Orna - whom I knew as the faculty advisor of my geology club - is both hilarious and true. Readers who may doubt his humorous affection for Stuyvesant High School should GOOGLE his commencement speech at the Class of 2011's graduation, seeking its YouTube videos.) With the possible exception of Frank McCourt, I can't think of anyone who has written a memoir on an emigrant's experience in the United States as profoundly moving, irresistibly hilarious, and surprisingly insightful; an engrossing saga warranting favorable comparisons not only with McCourt - who was born in Brooklyn, NY, left when he was very young, and didn't return to America until he was nineteen - but especially, Mark Twain, quite possibly American literature's greatest humorist and satirist. With "Little Failure: A Memoir", Shteyngart demonstrates again that he is our 21st Century Mark Twain, rivalling the former's skill in using humor in making readers laugh and think about everything from relations between the sexes to surviving primary and middle school as a young Russian emigrant barely able to speak American English, speaking a heavily accented version until the age of fourteen. With "Little Failure", Shteyngart demonstrates anew why he has been dubbed by The New York Times as "one of his generation's most original and exhilarating writers", taking us on a whirlwind trek spanning four decades and two continents; a trek I found impossible to put down, even missing a transfer at a Brooklyn subway station because I was so engrossed with his insightful humor.
"Little Failure: A Memoir" is not just a humorous memoir worthy of comparison with "Angela's Ashes", McCourt's finest. It's a compelling saga of a young Russian-American emigrant's survival in New York City, learning to become as American as his Soloman Schechter School classmates. (The progressive, religiously-oriented Jewish school in Queens which he attended for his primary and middle school education.) It's a memorable exploration into the education of a young writer, as noteworthy in its own right, as any book on this subject written by Mark Twain, Frank McCourt or Pete Hamill - to name but a few - and one that is destined to be viewed as an instant classic in the genre, chronicling a literary life that begins in pre-adolescence as a would-be writer of bad Soviet Union-inspired space opera science fiction to the literary titan that he is today. It's also a compelling examination of Shteyngart's life-long struggles to please his parents - the title is an Anglicized version of the quasi-Russian word "Failurchka", his mother's less than affectionate nickname for him - and how he succeeds - and fails - in falling in love with girls, and later, women, from his late adolescence to the present. Much to his credit, Shteyngart never ceases to amaze readers with his self-deprecating wit, having described emigrating from his country of birth as a "Jew for Grain" exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States. Despite the obstacles placed in his path, Shteyngart never comes across as someone traumatized - or embittered - by them, always relying on his witty, humorous prose to win the reader's attention and affection, even under the worst circumstances one can imagine. According to his Random House editor, David Ebershoff, himself, a notable writer of fiction ("The Danish Girl"), Gary Shteyngart has written a literary classic. May I be bold to suggest that a century from now this superb memoir will be as well regarded and as celebrated as Twain's best; without question, "Little Failure: A Memoir" is one of the great memoirs of our time, worthy of comparison with Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes", Pete Hamill's "A Drinking Life", Mary Karr's "The Liar's Club" and Rick Moody's "The Black Veil: A Memoir with Digressions". Shteyngart's hilarious, heart-warming prose, will entertain and delight many readers, keeping them spellbound from the first page to the last, and making his debut memoir among the most discussed, most anticipated, books of 2014.
This memoir by successful novelist Gary Shteyngart, who immigrated to the USA from Leningrad with his parents at age 7, is an unsparing look at what life is like for the "others" among us. Small, asthmatic, poor, badly dressed, Jewish but knowing nothing about Jewish religion and culture, and speaking no English, the little boy Igor has every strike against him when he enters the Solomon Shecter (Jewish) elementary school in Queens. At home in their tiny Rego Park apartment, his well-educated but seriously underemployed parents fight with each other, his father beats him, and his mother gives him the silent treatment when he disappoints her. There is no relief at school, where he encounters regular beatings because he is the "second most hated" boy. His only comfort is his father's mother, whom he calls Golya, who cares for him after school, spoiling him with the television and junk food his parents don't allow.
Igor becomes Gary, and as he learns English and his parents acquire more money and real estate, the boy learns that his talent at writing, coupled with his inventive sense of humor, slowly but surely raise his status in a school that he describes as a wasteland of poor teachers and little real education. His sharp intelligence gets him admitted to the selective Stuyvesant high school in Manhattan, where he begins a downward spiral into alcohol and drug abuse that lasts well into his 20s, but, with some help from his pleading mother, that doesn't interfere with his ability to get grades passable enough to get into Oberlin College.
Shteyngart relays all of this with a poignancy that is often bitter, even when relieved by his sharp sense of humor. With the benefit of hindsight and the intensive psychotherapy he starts as he approaches 30, he realizes that throughout his teens and young adulthood he behaved, succinctly put, as a "jerk." A spoiled one, at that. Shteyngart's self-awareness mitigates our dislike for this unattractive young man -- it's impossible to avoid feeling compassion for someone whose life got off to such a rocky start, even when he continues his self-destructive behaviors, despite his obvious intelligence.
As Shteyngart makes clear, his saving grace is, as it has been since early childhood, his writing. Even hungover, even when stoned, he writes, finally finishing his first novel -- and, through a stroke of great luck, sells it. The success of his writing career helps finance his psychotherapy and trips to Russia to face the demons he left behind. In the last section of the memoir, Shteyngart finances a trip to Leningrad/St. Petersburg with his parents, where they finally seem to make peace with their past and each other.
Not all of the book is evenly written, unfortunately. Shteyngart also has a tendency to throw coarse language into situations where it's jarring and inappropriate, particularly scenes of himself as a young invalid. Overall, however, this is an engaging and meaningful memoir, well-written and, most important, refreshingly honest.
on March 12, 2014
This is the first book I've ready by Gary Shteyngart. The first half--until he gets incredibly messed up in high school, is witty and amusing. Then this poor guy gets into high school, college and beyond. Oy Vay! What a wreck. I have no sympathy for him. I can't tell if he really blames his parents for his wreck of a life. He shows almost no responsibility for his incredibly horrific and destructive drug and alcohol use There is a distinct change to the narrative style. I suspect he is viewing his recent life more closely through the lens of his supposedly successful psychoanalysis. it comes across as a total whine. My interest flagged throughout the last half. Sorry...
on February 9, 2014
My peeps are Russian/Jewish emigres, but a generation behind, pre-Soviet. My folks were tight-lipped about the family history, and Shteyngart's fills in for mine in some important ways: Russian/Jewish parents are particularly adept at torturing their children (Little Failure, indeed) and while the details differ, our family dynamics, the emotional scripts, are the same. So the book is satisfying on that level.
The prose! Sheyngart is a master.
Sample sentence: "The northern sun clambers atop its perch with what can only be described as resignation, radiating pink across the tops of birches and the heavy architecture."
on June 11, 2014
I did read this book from cover to cover, but had to take breaks. The author is funny and articulate, and provides an interesting window into the childhood of an Russian immigrant. But. I began to tire of the self-absorbtion and navel-gazing which predominates until almost the very end. The author (with at times brutal candor) depicts himself as a very narcicisstic teen and young adult with little empathy for those around him. I hope the years of therapy have made him a kinder person.
on January 16, 2014
I want to preface this by saying that I am a fan of Gary. I have read every book he has put out and was eagerly awaiting this memoir.
I too am a Russian immigrant (though a goy in my case). Born in Moscow where as Shteyngart hails from Saint Petersburg.
One of the most uncomfortable college experiences I had was when once a grad student teaching my Slavic Studies course asked the class of your run of the mill Ohio State students what came to mind when they heard "Eastern Europe."
What sprang from the tips of the Midwestern tongues didn't exactly scar me for life but reaffirmed the fact that the place that housed my ancestors for hundreds of years is -in one way or another- viewed as a cold hell by many (if not most) in my adopted country.
Nothing about soulfulness or good literature or mystical spirituality came up.
The stereotypical litany I heard included, "prostitution, mafia, dictatorship" and -to add insult to injury- "bad food."
On the upside, nobody actually brought up an STD.
I have the perspective to appreciate this book.
The problem with "Little Failure" is that it is not a story of a Russian immigrant it is a story of an evolving neurosis.
The neurosis of a sick Soviet child, the neurosis of a thick-accented adolescent at a Hebrew school, the neurosis of a lonely teenager in an elite public school, etc...
Everything is told in this nervous, pained voice in search of the next punchline. All the other people in the memoir are vague, blurry ghosts. A source material for another bout of angst or a new litany of jokes.
Most good writing is crafted in a way where the reader can develop his own independent opinion about the events in the book. With "Little Failure" this feat is impossible. The reader dwells in a totalitarian, literary state where humor is the pedestal that upholds the ideology of dread. There is no freedom here. The nervous voice dictates your vision. And I found the experience of reading this book suffocating and repetitive.
This memoir is free of people, real people, real characters. The only real person is Gary and even he plays second fiddle to his nervous mind which is the only living entity that had depth in the book. Sort of like Chairman Mao was the only man who could afford to be fat in his realm.
All the people who make an appearance are more or less one-dimensional societal caricatures. Rich New York hippies, goofy left-wing Oberlin students and -of course- Soviet Jews.
For those who read this book and appreciate it, let me pose a simple question.
On one hand, place the stereotype of a Russian Jewish person and in another hand take Gary's parents as they are described in the book. Can you detect any difference? Could this lack of differences be considered a literary success?
Yes, Gary describes his folks with brilliant style but are they really perfect ethnic archetypes or has their humanity been stripped from them by their son?
There were ethnic stereotyping in Shteyngart's fictional works too, but with rich narratives they reclaimed their humanity. Not so in Little Failure.
There is a rich tradition of self-deprecating humor in America. But if you look closely, the people doing the self-deprivation are minorities. Brilliant Jewish, black and others putting out their ethnic laundry and having a laugh.
Woody Allen and Dave Chappell looking at mainstream American with a plea, "yes, I am ridiculous but can you still love me? let me do a funny dance for you."
Its an old performance that generated millions of dollars for the entertainment industry. But it strips the dancing monkey of his dignity.
As a Russian, I want my country of origin and its offspring to be described with more depth. Yes to absurdity, yes to tragedy, no to to a narrating voice of a cerebral Yakov Smirnoff. Sometimes you have to lay down the humor and show something real.
Yes, there is value in describing the immigrant neurosis, yes it is often funny. But I want to see a human face behind the laughs and the nervous twitches. I wanted to see the faces of Gary's parents. I wanted to see Gary's face.
I looked into the borscht and saw a dull, suffocating abyss.
Do svedanya, Gary.
I hope your next book won't be a little failure.
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