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Panic in a Suitcase: A Novel Hardcover – July 31, 2014

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Editorial Reviews


Praise for Panic in a Suitcase:

Named a Best or Notable Book of 2014 by the New York Times, Washington Post , Salon, NPR, Electric Literature, Gawker, Buzzfeed, and Flavorwire and a "Book You Need to Read in 2015" by Refinery 29

"Impressive ... beautifully drawn ... Akhtiorskaya layers the novel with equal parts humor and anxiety and expertly highlights the unease of having one foot in and one foot out of the old country. ... The book succeeds, phenomenally, at presenting the immigrant duality. ... The relationships Akhtiorskaya mines are fascinating and tender, her writing crisp and gorgeous in its ability to capture gnawing attempts to piece together an immigrant identity. Panic in a Suitcase is a rewarding biography of displacement, where those left behind are often as disconnected as those who flee for an elusive better life elsewhere." —The New York Times Book Review

“This 28-year-old writer from Odessa subordinates the violence of nations for a moment and offers the balm of laughter… Equal parts borscht stew and Borscht belt … this is the great immigrant story drained of its inspirational hype. … One wonders if Akhtiorskaya hasn’t descended from some unacknowledged Russian branch of Kingsley Amis’s family…. Genius.”—The Washington Post

“A virtuosic debut [and] a wry look at immigrant life in the global age” —Vogue

“A breath of fresh air… [Akhtiorskaya is] a deeply perceptive writer, and her observations about the family's experience as immigrants to America are sharp and sometimes heartbreaking… [and] leavened by [her] dry, brilliant sense of humor…Panic in a Suitcase isn't just remarkable as a literary debut, but also as a uniquely American work of fiction... It's a testament to Akhtiorskaya's wit, generosity, and immense talent as a young American author.” —NPR

“[A] spirited first novel…Akhtiorskaya approaches the fundamental experience of exile with tenderness and satiric wit” —The San Francisco Chronicle

"This funny, smart novel details the lives of Ukrainian émigrés who have moved to Brighton Beach. The best way to read it? On location, of course" Refinery 29, "Books You Need to Read in 2015"

“As Russian immigrant fiction evolves from novelty niche to full-on genre, every new effort faces a higher bar for originality. Akhtiorskaya vaults that bar with ease. Her characters…inhabit a post-Soviet universe in which you actually can go home again. Or possibly never even leave… [and] her vibrant blend of wordplay, wistfulness, and poignantly comic characters immediately conjures Nabokov’s academic farce, Pnin.” —Vulture

“Brilliant and often funny… the kind of fiction that is richer than real life…charged with consistently imaginative language and great verve… Ms. Akhtiorskaya’s prose keeps the pace moving as quickly as any suspenseful plot could…[a] sparkling debut.” The New York Times

“A riotous, satirical take on the aspirational escape-to-a-better-life saga… Reading Akhtiorskaya's tale of two cities is a high-impact verbal workout that may leave you breathless.”—Los Angeles Times

"In an engrossing, sensitive, and funny narrative, Akhtiorskaya captures the transcendent absurdities of intra-family communication and explores the way one family’s decisions can ‘cast a shadow that could be interpreted as fate.’”
The New Yorker

"Capturing the irritations and intricacies of family life with Nabokovian humor and wit … [Akhtiorskaya] gets at capital-T Truth without a hint of sentimentality, achieving the intangible literary goal of showing our oft-banal world in a familiar yet astonishing light.”—Elle

Panic in a Suitcase is a valuable addition to the novels capturing the Eastern European immigrant experience in America. Akhtiorskaya has found a bit of grotesque fun in this age-old story, a significant achievement.” —Chicago Tribune

"Very nearly Nabokovian." —New York Magazine

“[Akhtiorskaya’s] voice is utterly original and unique, but also confident enough that the reader happily follows her wherever her kaleidoscopic vocabulary and unpredictable turns of phrase may lead. Lines that demand to be copied into notebooks abound…  It is one of the most successful, entertaining, uniquely-written pieces of fiction I have ever read…Like everyone else who rightly decides to pick up this book, I will await Akhtiorskaya’s next novel with rabid anticipation.” —Artvoice

Panic in a Suitcase makes something unexpectedly refreshing out of the overcooked tropes of the immigrant household struggling in its new environs… Akhtiorskaya’s work, with its attentiveness to the small but crucial moment, its meandering from perspective to perspective to perspective, put me in mind of Virginia Woolf…reading her debut novel, one can easily believe that she may well write a true masterpiece and soon.” —The Jewish Daily Forward

“Akhtiorskaya has a gift for vivid, unexpected detail and evocative metaphor… Peopled with smartly drawn, humorously caricatured characters and packed with clever, evocative description, Panic in a Suitcase is a charming, chaotic read.”—The Huffington Post

“For all of the glorious eccentricities of [Akhtiorskaya’s] characters, the enduring message of this book is both deeply universal and faithful to the idiosyncrasies on display…[Panic in a Suitcase has] humor and catharsis in abundance” —Christian Science Monitor

“An impressive tragicomedy about culture shock, integration and the tangle of family bonds…Akhtiorskaya’s many dizzying locutions and descriptions…are redolent of early Nabokov… her rich language and ideas sublimate the mundane — 'the katastrofa that is everyday life' — into something very special indeed.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“[Akhtiorskaya] drags the churning hopes, terrors, delusions, and disillusions of emigration in late-capitalist America to the surface… crystallizing the experience of three generations, two countries, and an overlooked immigrant community in 300 pages of muscular, unpredictable prose”—The Millions

“Sharply observed and very funny… exuberant set pieces about modern émigré life [are] animated by Akhtiorskaya's insider knowledge and her offbeat way with words…ingenious” —NPR

“Akhtiorskaya writes fearlessly, like a dancer who’s never been injured pushing every move to the max… reading this giddily inventive prose is like touring a city where you’ve lived all your life and discovering entire districts you didn’t know existed… A thrilling debut by a writer with a generous soul.” —San Diego Jewish World

“Akhtiorskaya [has a] spectacular voice and uncanny ability to spot the absurdity in everything…[the] linguistic pleasures are … bold and memorable…the author hits homeruns on every page of the novel with her clever insights about family dynamics and immigrants….[An] immensely gifted novelist with a sharp eye for the ridiculous and a bright literary future.” —Pop Matters

“[Panic in a Suitcase]’s prose truly sets it apart, bursting with such striking imagery, syntactic complexity, and poeticism that it would do its own protagonist proud.” —Nylon

“Yelena Akhtiorskaya is one of New York’s best young writers — funny and inventive and stylistically daring, yes, but also clear-eyed and honest.” —The Millions

“Lyrical, funny… deftly crafted… Ms. Akhtiorskaya, who is under 30, writes like an old soul… Panic in a Suitcase effectively paints the picture of family that is anything but smooth, and… Akhtiorskaya’s unique linguistic gifts reflect and even illuminate her rough-textured worlds.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“An amusingly off-kilter glimpse of a family lost in transition, with jokes aplenty tinged with an authentic Russian Borscht Belt attitude.” —The Jewish Week

"A hilarious debut...Akhtiorskaya excels at humorous, slightly overstated character sketches, making each person uniquely absurd.”
Publisher's Weekly

“Marvelous…With beautiful prose that often feels like poetry, Akhtiorskaya portrays America from an outsider’s perspective while revealing the collective truths about families no matter where they live…A touching and darkly funny first novel that is sure to be adored by readers everywhere. Very highly recommended.”
Library Journal (starred review)

“Given current events, Akhtiorskaya’s debut—concerning an immigrant family’s ambivalent ties to America and those who choose to stay behind in Ukraine—could not be more timely… [her] set-piece descriptions are drawn with sharp humor… and sensory flamboyance [that] allows rays of genuine emotion to filter through the social and domestic satire.” –Kirkus [starred review]

“A mercilessly funny debut novel about a Russian family washing up, and out, in America. Yelena Akhtiorskaya seems helplessly bound to deliver the truth, in perfect prose, about our families, wherever they are from. She is a tremendously good new writer.”
—Ben Marcus, author of Leaving the Sea and The Flame Alphabet

“This is not only a wise, funny novel; it feels like the beginning of a thrilling career. Yelena Akhtiorskaya's sentences plunge the reader headlong into the energy, anxiety, frailty, and love of the Nasmertov family of Brooklyn and Odessa. She finds poetry in clamor and disorder, and she sees her characters from every angle, with a rare mix of clarity and compassion.”
– Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding 

“Sentence after sentence, Panic in a Suitcase is infused with humor and poetry, as Akhtiorskaya's characters emerge beautiful and hilarious and splendorous in all their failings. Her language and intelligence achieve what only great literature can do: transform what you know and love into something strange and new, making the world realign itself according to the writer's sensibility. I'd read a take-out menu written by Yelena Akthiorskaya, but Panic in a Suitcase is a humbling, astonishing debut. Get to it as soon as you can.”
—Aleksandar Hemon

“I think Yelena Akhtiorskaya is a genius. What she manages to do, linguistically and emotionally, in the span of a single sentence, is astonishing.”
—Keith Gessen, author of All the Sad Young Literary Men

“Yelena Akhtiorskaya creates a beautifully precise and vibrant world populated by touching, funny, unforgettable characters. A true joy to read.”
—Lara Vapnyar, author of Memoirs of a Muse


About the Author

Yelena Akhtiorskaya was born in Odessa in 1985 and raised in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. She holds an MFA from Columbia University. She is the recipient of a Posen Fellowship in Fiction, and her writing has appeared in n+1, The New Republic, Triple Canopy, and elsewhere. She lives in New York City.

See all Editorial Reviews

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books; 1St Edition edition (July 31, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594632146
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594632143
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (71 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #593,219 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

26 of 29 people found the following review helpful By John Kwok HALL OF FAME on May 7, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s debut novel “Panic in a Suitcase” is not just the finest mainstream literary debut novel I have read this year. It is an important addition to emigrant fiction literature, and one that can be compared favorably even with the likes of Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes”, simply for the exceptional quality of her prose and storytelling. It is also the only debut novel I have read this year that truly captures the sights and sounds of New York City across the span of two decades, offering readers a compellingly fictional depiction of New York City’s ascendancy as a tourist mecca for visitors around the world, even as it reminds me of the departed sights and sounds of the streets around Union Square that exist now only within the realm of memory. Akhtiorskaya’s novel lacks the self-evident satire present in fellow Russian emigrant Gary Shteyngart’s critically acclaimed novels, but it is often hilarious in its own right, with an emigrant family, the Nasmertovs, who, as characters, are as memorable as any found in Shteyngart’s fiction. Her novel shows readers how the Nasmertovs seek to become genuine Americans, trying to live the American dream in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, New York. Given unexpectedly a chance to return home following the collapse of the Soviet Union, they wrestle with their notions of what it means to be an American while still clinging to the intellectual life of their place of birth, trying to decide whether they are still Russian, even after spending decades in America. What the writer has wrought is a compellingly readable family saga that is rich in wisdom as well as humor.Without question, Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s “Panic in a Suitcase” will be remembered as one of the notable debut novels published this year, well received by critics and readers of mainstream literary fiction.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Lonya VINE VOICE on June 19, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
and where all your yesteryears are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can." Beryl Markham

Panic in a Suitcase takes a 20-year look at the Nasmertov family, who left Odessa, one city on the Sea, for another, Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. When the story opens in 1993 the family is firmly entrenched in the Russian/Ukrainian enclave in Brighton Beach (often referred to as Little Odessa) except the Nasmertov's son Pavel who had chosen to stay behind. Pavel is a poet and more than a bit baffled by the external world. Concerned for his health the family has him fly over for a vacation. He spends a month in Brooklyn with his family and friends before returning to Odessa. Years later, his niece Frida returns to Odessa for the wedding of Pavel's son. The book's story is not really plot-driven as much as it is driven by an examination of how emigrants deal with their experience as a stranger in a strange land and how that experience is viewed by those they left behind. In the first half of the book we have Pavel casting a critical eye on Little Odessa and the life lived by his family. On Frida's return to Odessa the camera-eye is reversed and a critical eye was cast on the city where their yesteryears are buried deep.

Panic in a Suitcase had a particular resonance for me. My grandparents left (fled may be the more accurate word) Odessa for Brooklyn about 90-years before the Nasmertov family. They fought through poverty, despair, family dysfunction until their place here in the U.S. was secure.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Liz Y on August 25, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I wanted to love Panic in a Suitcase, I really did. Just like the author, I immigrated from the s*** stain of Ukraine at the lucky age of seven, and grew up in what I like to call the a** crack of Brooklyn. This novel was supposed to be as familiar to me as a heaping bowl of hot borscht and a stale piece of pumpernickel bread. Instead, I felt a bit like an oblivious tourist in my own city; by trying too hard to resist cliche, the author neglected to represent authentic immigrant culture.
The first part of the book took a measurable effort to get through. It seemed to me, Akhtiorskaya's grandiloquent storytelling was intended to impress Columbia professors and New York Times critics, not us, mere humans. Clearly, the book's main intent was not about appealing to the average reader. That aspect was slightly off putting, albeit very much in line with the culture that is at the center of this book. This is not to say that there was nothing about the language to be admired; occasionally it was artful and inventive, but at other times, outright pompous. In Part One, the characters we meet are quirky, yet lackluster. They have the potential to be entertaining, but they never quite get there. Pasha is simply boring and so is his coterie of pals. It was hard work trying to stay engaged for the first 150 pages, but many thanks for the vocabulary lesson. I found the narration just intriguing enough to hang on, though even fun incidents such as Marina feeding her Hasidic boss' child pepperoni pizza were considerably dulled by all the unnecessary ten dollar words. Thankfully, in Part Two the author eased up on the word aerobics. I found myself wishing I hadn't wasted my time with Part One and skipped to Part Two from the start. The connection between the two parts was super weak, one can easily exist without the other. Despite all the aforementioned critique, I really look forward to this authors next book, I am interested in seeing how her work will evolve.
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