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Little Failure: A Memoir by Gary Shteyngart

Little Failure: A Memoir

by Gary Shteyngart

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
What I've loved about Gary's novels is the balance of subtle American cultural humor balanced with immigrant experience. I had high expectations of his autobiography, and I liked when I ran into Gary's experiences being kicking-off-points for things that happened in his novels. In its own right, it's an interesting story. If I had a million magical dollars, I'd pay Gary to write my biography, and it would probably be incredibly funny and poignant and make you feel deeply, and feel good reading it.
  sonyagreen | Aug 25, 2014 |
Ostensibly, "Little Failure" is about Shteyngart's complicated relationship with his parents, and how they crippled him emotionally, but basically it is just about why Gary Shteyngart is an asshole. David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs: they too were subjected to unorthodox parenting, and lived to write good books about it. Shteyngart: not so much. I ended up with sympathy for his Soviet mother and father, who tried to make a new living in the USA, only to see their son squander his opportunities on drugs and alcohol, and hide his insecurities behind douchey behaviour. I liked Shteyngarts ficion so far (Debutante and especially Absurdistan); there were just some aspects that made me queasy - I now know it's the passages where his own personality comes through. ( )
1 vote fist | Jun 10, 2014 |
Imagine you are born a Jew in Soviet Russia. Then imagine that you emigrate to "the enemy" in the mass exodus of Soviet Jews in the late 1970's. Imagine you are thrust into an American school and speak no English. Imagine your parents pinning all their hopes and fears on you. And then imagine that your last name is Shteyngart & figure out how that can be mangled every day of your life. Is it any wonder that the author of this alternatively hilarious and touching memoir is neurotic?

Gary Shteyngart's memoirs record his journey from being a weak, asthmatic child, to wise-acre computer nerd grade school student, to troubled teenager amidst the over- achieving immigrant students at New York's premier Stuyvesant High School, to his drug-addled college years, finally emerging as a talented novelist. He's not particularly appealing, especially in his teenage and young adult years, but I never lost my sympathy for him as he tries to navigate the difficult landscape of growing up different in the United States, coming to terms with not only his, but also his parents' demons, and pursuing a career in writing.

That he has succeeded is a testament to his own personal core as well as to the people around him who believed in him - even at his most obnoxious - and helped him along the way. A fascinating and entertaining read. ( )
  etxgardener | May 5, 2014 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
There are some parts of this book that feel like raw nerve endings, the more I think about it – and not just with the family stuff, either. Towards the end, when Gary first goes to a psychiatrist, he explains rather baldly why he doesn’t think it will work – that self-defense mechanism within all of us that resists baring our souls to others. You can see, too, how this book bears that tension as well. And it can be a little difficult at times, that rawness. But it’s also delightfully funny and brilliantly written – Shteyngart is one of the premier writers working today, in any form. Read this book to understand exactly why.
More at RB: http://ragingbiblioholism.com/2013/12/20/little-failure/ ( )
1 vote drewsof | Apr 7, 2014 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

“There is a photograph of me at one year and ten months taken at a photo studio. Wearing a pair of children’s jogging pants with their outline of a cartoon bunny on one of the front pockets, I hold a phone in my hand (the photo studio is proud to exhibit this advanced Soviet technology), and I am getting ready to bawl. The look on my face is that of a mother in 1943 who just received a fateful telegram from the front. I am scared of the photo studio. I am scared of the telephone. Scared of anything outside our apartment. Scared of the people in their big fur hats. Scared of the snow. Scared of the cold. Scared of the heat. Scared of the ceiling fan at which I would point one tragic finger and start weeping. Scared of any height higher than my sickbed. Scared of Uncle Electric Current. ‘Why was I so scared of everything?’ I ask my mother nearly forty years later.
‘Because you were born a Jewish person,’ she says.” (pages 24-25)
I have yet to read a book that has generated so much attention from strangers on the subway.

Little Failure has been my commuting companion for the past couple weeks, and SO MANY people have stopped me to ask about the book. Probably because I was clearly, audibly enjoying it. Seriously. Laughing out loud. I almost wish I was handselling copies…

Shteyngart is anything but a failure. I’ve long been a fan of his writing and often found myself wondering how much of his own experience moving from Russia to Queens at a young age found its way into his work. Short answer: a lot. Longer answer: read the memoir. Well, read any of his novels first, then read the memoir. I’d start with The Russian Debutante’s Handbook…but that’s just me.

One of the things I admire about Shteyngart’s work: he is a master of strong, consistent narrative voice. Even when reading his fiction, I got the sense that there was a lot of him in the piece. It lends a sense of authenticity to his work, even when his characters are involved in bizarre situations. And when retelling the story of his early childhood in Russia, his journey to America via Vienna, his epic experiences at the Solomon Schecter School of Queens, his time at Oberlin, his early years in New York and his periodic travels back to Russia, Shteyngart approaches each era with honesty and humor. He is equal parts self-deprecating and self-reflective…but where the use of humor can feel like a deflective technique, Shteyngart wields his wit to build a sense of intimacy with the reader. Despite having spent the better part of his life feeling like an outsider, he has a gift for allowing the reader to feel like his confidant.

Rubric rating: 8.5 This memoir has solidified Gary Shteyngart’s place among my short list of favorite contemporary writers. He is absurdly talented. ( )
  jaclyn_michelle | Apr 4, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679643753, Hardcover)

After three acclaimed novels—The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan, and Super Sad True Love Story—Gary Shteyngart now turns to memoir in a candid, witty, deeply poignant account of his life so far. Shteyngart shares his American immigrant experience, moving back and forth through time and memory with self-deprecating humor, moving insights, and literary bravado. The result is a resonant story of family and belonging that feels epic and intimate and distinctly his own.
Shteyngart’s loving but mismatched parents dreamed that he would become a lawyer or at least an accountant on Wall Street, something their distracted son was simply not cut out to do. Fusing English and Russian, his mother created the term Failurchka—Little Failure—which she applied to her son. With love. Mostly.
As a result, Shteyngart operated on a theory that he would fail at everything he tried. At being a boyfriend, at being a writer, and most important, at being a worthwhile human being.
Born Igor Shteyngart in Leningrad during the twilight of the Soviet Union, the curious, diminutive, asthmatic boy grew up with a persistent sense of yearning—for food, for acceptance, for words—desires that would follow him into adulthood. At five, Igor decided to become a writer, and his grandmother paid him a slice of cheese for every page he produced. He wrote Lenin and His Magical Goose, his first novel.
In the late 1970s, world events changed Igor’s life, and his parents would change his name. Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev made a deal: exchange tankers of grain for the safe passage of Soviet Jews to America—a country Igor viewed as the enemy. Along the way, Igor became Gary so that he would suffer one or two fewer beatings from other kids. Coming to the United States after spending the first part of his childhood in the Soviet Union was equivalent to stumbling off a monochromatic cliff and landing in a pool of pure Technicolor.
Shteyngart recalls that the first two books he ever read were about small children shrunk to even smaller size and forced into a hostile place. Now those stories appeared to have come true, as he lived in two contradictory worlds, all the while wishing that he could find a real home in one. And somebody to love him. And somebody to lend him sixty-nine cents for a McDonald’s hamburger.
Provocative, hilarious, and inventive, Little Failure reveals a deeper vein of emotion in Gary Shteyngart’s prose. It is a memoir of an immigrant family coming to America, as told by a lifelong misfit who forged from his imagination an essential literary voice and, against all odds, a place in the world.

Advance praise for Little Failure
“Gary Shteyngart has written a memoir for the ages. I spat laughter on the first page and closed the last with wet eyes. Unputdownable in the day and a half I spent reading it, Little Failure is a window into immigrant agony and ambition, Jewish angst, and anybody’s desperate need for a tribe. Readers who’ve fallen for Shteyngart’s antics on the page will relish the trademark humor. But here it’s laden and leavened with a deep, consequential psychological journey. Brave and unflinching, Little Failure is his best book to date.”—Mary Karr, bestselling author of Lit and The Liars’ Club

“A surefire hit.”—Library Journal

Praise for Super Sad True Love Story
“Wonderful . . . [combines] the tenderness of the Chekhovian tradition with the hormonal high jinks of a Judd Apatow movie.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:48:29 -0400)

"... a memoir of an immigrant family coming to America, as told by a lifelong misfit who forged from his imagination an essential literary voice and, against all odds, a place in the world."--

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