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Little Failure: A Memoir Hardcover – Deckle Edge, January 7, 2014
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*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
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
Top customer reviews
Two things. First, I love this book. I understand the disguises and lies Gary made to "pass" as an American, due to the fact that I am a first gen immigrant, too. I am hooked to immigrant memoirs in general, but I get so much out of this book, including but not limited to my forgotten dream to be a writer. I think this book is written for people who are once outsiders. You get stuck in that feeling throughout your life, which is uncomfortable but creatively helpful.
Second, some readers object to Gary's humor and self-importance. The thing is, that's his coping system. As an outsider, he makes fun of the essential things in life to direct people's attention to the margin area - that's where he lives. It's actually quite sad, and it's sadder that some readers don't understand that.
(Spoiler alert) That ending with him going to Russia with his parents is a lot more meaningful to me than just a perfect bookend type ending for a memoir. People that become famous authors that teach at Columbia University didn't get there by accident. The type of person who can achieve these dreams can also talk his parents into going to Russia to give his memoir a great ending. This isn't a criticism, rather an inspiring observation that if you have the will, you can make things that you want to happen become reality, and the more you bend reality to your will, it becomes like second nature.
That, or as a writer, you can look back into your past and figure out how it fits into a good story. Either way, it's very thought provoking.