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Little Failure: A Memoir Paperback – October 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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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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.
The book is suffused--no, riddled--with self-deprecating, sardonic humor that rubs off onto whoever touches it. But it is also a moving work, filled with simple yet profound truths.
The negatives: It does meander. There are frequent, irritating shifts in time--old memories, more recent ones, and the present are intertwined somewhat haphazardly. And it's too bad Shteyngart or his editors don't understand the proper use of the word "whom." Small distractions, these.
Undeniably, it takes a certain hubris for a man of barely 40--a person who hasn't survived cancer or wrongful imprisonment or, really, anything particularly extraordinary--a person who's only claim to our attention is the publication of three novels while in his 30s--to justify penning his memoirs. But in this case they make for a good story, one that's subtler, more intricately woven and more magnetic than his fine, funny, farcical and over-the-top novels.
Shteyngart isn't always as funny as he thinks he is. Yes, there are elements of Borat and the 1980s comic Yaakov Smirnov. But such comparisons may be unfair because his is a literary voice that's not just going for laughs.
Bottom line: Like all good memoirs, this one takes you inside the mind of a complex, not always friendly but nevertheless likable person. You come away feeling that Shteyngart is an old and dear friend, someone you'd like to spend more time with. (So message me, Gary! I'll be waiting...)