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Little Failure: A Memoir Hardcover – Deckle Edge, January 7, 2014

3.9 out of 5 stars 393 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Novelist Shteyngart (Super Sad True Love Story, 2010) looks back at his tug-of-war life in this caustic, funny, brash, and self-immolating memoir. Born in Leningrad, in 1972, the only child of a kindergarten piano teacher and a mechanical engineer, Shteyngart was a small, anxious, severely asthmatic boy stretched on the rack of his warring parents’ needs and worries and subjected to downright medieval treatments for his ailment. While gasping for breath and paralyzed with fear, including a terror of the Soviets’ notorious exploding televisions, Shteyngart—nicknamed “Little Failure”—became a “pathological reader.” Encouraged to write by his indomitable grandmother, who paid him for his efforts in cheese, he composed his first novel at age five: Lenin and His Magical Goose. Veering between flaying candor and chagrined adoration in his vivid depictions of his family, Shteyngart is also diabolically droll in his accounts of social absurdities, including what he basically describes as the grain-for-Jews agreement reached between Jimmy Carter and the USSR that freed Soviet Jewry, including the battling Shteyngarts. He then experienced a second life-changing liberation when he received his first inhaler. Finally able to breath, the Little Failure figures out that writing is his only defense against being a “hated freak” in a Hebrew school in Queens. Shteyngart’s penetrating attentiveness, outlandish precision, abrading and embracing humor, and ability to extrapolate larger truths about inheritance, immigration, assimilation, and creativity from his own epic floundering and yearning make for a memoir of exceptional dimension, provocation, and pleasure. --Donna Seaman

From Bookforum

Honest, poignant, hilarious [...] Shteyngart's stalwart refusal to cast himself as a victim sets this book apart from the majority of American memoirs, whose authors seem hell-bent on passing judgement on the people who raised them. […] Shteyngart seems to have made a deal with some minor devil (a daredevil?) stipulating that if he exposed every crack and fissure in himself, laid bare every misstep, fuckup, and psychic flaw, his memoir would be a deep and original book. If so, the payoff here was absolutely worth it. —Kate Christensen
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; First Edition edition (January 7, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679643753
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679643753
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (393 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #361,847 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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.
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