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Little Failure: A Memoir by Gary Shteyngart
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Little Failure: A Memoir

by Gary Shteyngart

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74. Little Failure: A Memoir (Audio) by Gary Shteyngart, read by Jonathan Todd Ross (2014, 12 hrs 46 mins, 368 pages in Paperback, Listened December 4-15)

I hadn't been interested in Shteyngart, but this book popped up on NPR's best books of 2014 page and, when another audio book I was reading was unexpectedly and automatically returned to the library, I needed* an audio book and this was available at the library. I liked it enough that when the first book came available again, I chose to keep listening to this.

The first half or maybe even 2/3's of this memoir is about Shteyngart's immigration to and assimilation with the US. His family left Russia with many other Jews in the late 1970's when Shteyngart was five. They spent about a year in different places in Europe and then immigrated the US, or the enemy as Shteyngart understood it, when he was seven. It's a rich and fascination experience of the world in Russia and then the confusion in the US. As a Jew in Russia, a large portion of Shteyngart's aunts and uncles, great aunts and uncles and at least two of his great grandfathers died young, many during WWII where his mother's family, in Belorussia, was caught between Russian and German abuse. In the US his parents linked up with a very conservative Jewish community and Shteyngart found himself circumcised at age 7! And, in his cultural confusion and effort to hide his Russian identity, he told his friends at his all Jewish school that was East German.

The book keeps going and Shteyngart becomes a really messed up high schooler and young adult, with severe drug and alcohol problems and self destructive neurosis. I didn't know any of this, and it's almost like a completely different book. I simply didn't see these problems coming. At one point a friend who has been his benefactor gives him a loan based on the promise that Shteyngart will get psychiatric help, and the therapy seems to have been key in Shteyngart stabilizing his life and becoming a successful author.

There seems to be a lot of insight into Shteyngart's novels, but I haven't read any of them. What I found interesting was that he lived through the same era I did, and yet our experiences were so radically different. Even his cultural references were often so different from my own.

Overall I found the book very good, and certainly it's great for Shteyngart fans. I'm not sure whether or not I want to read his novels.

Note on the audio: Jonathan Todd Ross has a fantastic voice. But, his voice is so wholesome American, I didn't feel it was the right voice for this book.

*"needed" is maybe too strong a word for really wanted ( )
  dchaikin | Dec 20, 2014 |
I had a hard time with this book. I disliked Sheyngart intensely despite how difficult his childhood and his parents were. I agreed with his friend John's harsh criticisms. I hated his ironic, self-pitying tone as he regarded himself. I'm happy John finally lent him money for psychoanalysis, but the results, the ability to look upon one's life more dispassionately, were not evident. And the writing was pedestrian.

Just to give a sense of my exasperation: The whole business of the panic attacks and the Chesme church and the helicopter, foreshadowed throughout the book, I never quite got. Yes his father hit him there, but he hit him many other times. (I feel bad quibbling about this, but it just gives a sense of my frustration with this book.)

And who wants to read excerpts from books people wrote as children? Tedium. ( )
  bobbieharv | Dec 15, 2014 |
Gary Shteyngart is best known for his prolific blurbing; they even did a documentary about it. Few people may know that when he isn’t blurbing books he hasn’t read, he has written a book or three. He has enjoyed critical acclaim from his three books, including winning the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction, the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction and being named one of The New Yorker magazine’s “20 under 40″ luminary fiction writers. He now tells the story of Gary Shteyngart, born to Jewish parents in Leningrad, USSR (that’s St. Petersburg, Russia for those too old or too young to know Leningrad) and migrated to America at seven.

As those that follow me on twitter will know, I’ve been a little obsessed with Gary Shteyngart as of late. This is mainly because I was excited to read his memoir Little Failure and also because I like his style. Granted I’ve only read one novel of his, Super Sad True Love Story but it remains in my top ten books of all time. Reading through Little Failure just reminded me what I liked about Gary Shteyngart. I rewatched all his book trailers (they are well worth checking out), and a whole heap of interviews. I even ordered the two books of his I was missing; The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan, which I plan to read this year. I might even re-read Super Sad True Love Story again as I have more to say about the book and the world.

Little Failure is a memoir that focuses mainly on Gary Shteyngart’s life as a Russian born immigrant living in America. This was during the time of the Cold War so we see the struggles he had to go through as a kid, even to the extent where pretending to be a German was a better option. Leningrad to Queens would have been a cultural shock and Gary Shteyngart lays himself bare when it comes to his struggles with his family and school. There are other parts, I felt were only brushed over; his relationships, wanting to be a writer, his marriage. I would have liked to know more about these things but maybe there is another memoir for him.

I was surprised to learn how much of Super Sad True Love Story was autobiographical. There was a lot of Gary in his character Lenny and knowing that his wife is Korean I wonder how similar to Eunice she is. I will be paying careful attention to his other novels; now that I know a lot more about his life, the context is very revealing. It makes me want to read biographies of some of my favourite authors and then re-read my favourite books to see what is similar. I know, I’ve come late to the whole ‘non-fiction’ party (I’ve blogged about my struggle with non-fiction) but I’m starting to get it.

If you’ve not read this author before, you need to remember he is satirist with a strong focus on culture, especially as an outsider. His Russian and Jewish culture plays a big part in his writing style; I’m a huge fan of Russian literature as well as satire, so it’s no wonder I enjoy his works. Shteyngart’s father always told Gary not to be a stereotypical Jewish writer, meaning not to be self-loathing. I never thought self-loathing was a Jewish trait, I always thought that was part of the formula for all good books. This is a trait of humanity and I personally love books with an internal struggle, it makes it feel so real. Not sure about this tangent but I think it speaks to the style and what to expect from Shteyngart, his novels and this memoir.

I really enjoyed learning about this author and I can’t wait to read his other books. So keep a look out for a review of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan in the coming year. You might even get another review of Super Sad True Love Story. I hope Shteyngart writes another memoir later about his life as a husband and a writer, I would be interested to know about that part of his life. This was an entertaining and funny memoir about Jewish/Russian/American life as a child; well worth reading.

This review originally appeared on my blog; http://literary-exploration.com/2014/01/20/little-failure-by-gary-shteyngart/ ( )
  knowledge_lost | Dec 3, 2014 |
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 |
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Ross, Jonathan ToddNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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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