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Little Failure: A Memoir

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"NEW YORK TIMES "BESTSELLER After three acclaimed novels, Gary Shteyngart 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 "NEW YORK TIMES "BESTSELLER After three acclaimed novels, Gary Shteyngart 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. 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 wrote his first novel, "Lenin and His Magical Goose, "and his grandmother paid him a slice of cheese for every page. In the late 1970s, world events changed Igor's life. Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev made a deal: exchange 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 from the Soviet Union was equivalent to stumbling off a monochromatic cliff and landing in a pool of pure Technicolor. Shteyngart's loving but mismatched parents dreamed that he would become a lawyer or at least a "conscientious toiler" 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 writer, at being a boyfriend, and, most important, at being a worthwhile human being. Swinging between a Soviet home life and American aspirations, Shteyngart found himself living 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. Praise for "Little Failure " "[A] keenly observed tale of exile, coming-of-age and family love: It's raw, comic and deeply affecting, a testament to Mr. Shteyngart's abilities to write with both self-mocking humor and introspective wisdom, sharp-edged sarcasm and aching--and yes, Chekhovian--tenderness."--Michiko Kakutani, "The New York Times" "Hilarious and moving . . . The army of readers who love Gary Shteyngart is about to get bigger."--"The New York Times Book Review" " " "Dazzling . . . "Little Failure" is a rich, nuanced memoir. It's an immigrant story, a coming-of-age story, a becoming-a-writer story, and a becoming-a-mensch story, and in all these ways it is, unambivalently, a success."--Meg Wolitzer, "NPR" " " "An ecstatic depiction of survival, guilt and perseverance . . . as vivid, original and funny as [anything] contemporary U.S. literature has to offer."--"Los Angeles Times" "[A] touching, insightful memoir . . . [Shteyngart] nimbly achieves the noble Nabokovian goal of letting sentiment in without ever becoming sentimental."--"The Washington Post" "From the Hardcover edition."


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"NEW YORK TIMES "BESTSELLER After three acclaimed novels, Gary Shteyngart 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 "NEW YORK TIMES "BESTSELLER After three acclaimed novels, Gary Shteyngart 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. 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 wrote his first novel, "Lenin and His Magical Goose, "and his grandmother paid him a slice of cheese for every page. In the late 1970s, world events changed Igor's life. Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev made a deal: exchange 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 from the Soviet Union was equivalent to stumbling off a monochromatic cliff and landing in a pool of pure Technicolor. Shteyngart's loving but mismatched parents dreamed that he would become a lawyer or at least a "conscientious toiler" 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 writer, at being a boyfriend, and, most important, at being a worthwhile human being. Swinging between a Soviet home life and American aspirations, Shteyngart found himself living 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. Praise for "Little Failure " "[A] keenly observed tale of exile, coming-of-age and family love: It's raw, comic and deeply affecting, a testament to Mr. Shteyngart's abilities to write with both self-mocking humor and introspective wisdom, sharp-edged sarcasm and aching--and yes, Chekhovian--tenderness."--Michiko Kakutani, "The New York Times" "Hilarious and moving . . . The army of readers who love Gary Shteyngart is about to get bigger."--"The New York Times Book Review" " " "Dazzling . . . "Little Failure" is a rich, nuanced memoir. It's an immigrant story, a coming-of-age story, a becoming-a-writer story, and a becoming-a-mensch story, and in all these ways it is, unambivalently, a success."--Meg Wolitzer, "NPR" " " "An ecstatic depiction of survival, guilt and perseverance . . . as vivid, original and funny as [anything] contemporary U.S. literature has to offer."--"Los Angeles Times" "[A] touching, insightful memoir . . . [Shteyngart] nimbly achieves the noble Nabokovian goal of letting sentiment in without ever becoming sentimental."--"The Washington Post" "From the Hardcover edition."

30 review for Little Failure: A Memoir

  1. 4 out of 5

    Diane

    I. Loved. This. Book. I loved this book so much that I finished it more than a week ago and I am still mulling it over. How can I write a review of a memoir so funny and brilliant and insightful and emotional and just plain good? My review will never be able to explain everything I admired in Shteyngart's writing. I used more than 50 Post-it flags to mark great passages. How can I share all of that? I loved this book so much that I have already begged several friends to read it. I pleaded and cajo I. Loved. This. Book. I loved this book so much that I finished it more than a week ago and I am still mulling it over. How can I write a review of a memoir so funny and brilliant and insightful and emotional and just plain good? My review will never be able to explain everything I admired in Shteyngart's writing. I used more than 50 Post-it flags to mark great passages. How can I share all of that? I loved this book so much that I have already begged several friends to read it. I pleaded and cajoled them. I emailed them quotes. I shared anecdotes. I even requested a library copy for one friend, and am sharing my personal copy with another. I loved this book so much that I have described it as the first legitimate 5-star book I've read this year. Sure, I've reread a few favorites that I gave five stars, and another one I marked up for personal reasons, but "Little Failure" is genuine. The Real Deal. The kind of book that I consider to be truly great, and one that will still be considered great years from now. I loved this book so much that I developed kind of a crush on the author. Poor, sweet little Gary. Gary, whose original name was Igor, was born in Russia and immigrated to America in 1979, the year he turned 7. Igor changed his name to Gary to cut down on beatings from other kids. Poor Gary had tough parents: his dad called him "snotty" because of his asthma and his mother nicknamed him "little failure." Give that boy a hug already! I loved this book so much that I want to read all of Shteyngart's previous novels. Throughout the memoir, he mentions characters and plots in his stories that were based on his real-life experiences, and I'm excited to see the fictional versions. I also like it when good writers talk about their writing process, and I got to see little Gary grow from being a boy who wrote science fiction stories while his grandmother fed him a piece of cheese for every page he wrote, to a young man whose first novel, "The Russian Debutante's Handbook," so upset a middle-aged relative that he threw it on the floor and spit on it. I loved this book so much that it me laugh, it made me teary-eyed, and it made me marvel at the beauty of his storytelling. Now I'm going to stop trying to convince you that it's great and just start sharing favorite quotes. In conclusion, GO READ THIS BOOK ALREADY. "Coming to America after a childhood spent in the Soviet Union is equivalent to stumbling off a monochromatic cliff and landing in a pool of pure Technicolor." "The first momentous thing that happens to me in Kew Gardens, Queens, is that I fall in love with cereal boxes. We are too poor to afford toys at this point, but we do have to eat. Cereal is food, sort of. It tastes grainy, easy and light, with a hint of false fruitiness. It tastes the way America feels." "In 1982, I decide that I can no longer be me. The name 'Gary' is a fig leaf, and what I really am is a fucking Red Gerbil, a Commie ... One day after one Commie comment too many, I tell my fellow pupils that I wasn't born in Russia at all. Yes, I just remembered it! It had all been a big misunderstanding! I was actually born in Berlin ... So here I am, trying to convince Jewish children in a Hebrew school that I am actually a German. And can't these little bastards see that I love America more than anyone loves America? I am a ten-year-old Republican. I believe that taxes should only be levied on the poor, and the rest of Americans should be left alone. But how do I bridge that gap between being a Russian and being loved? I start to write." "I write because there is nothing as joyful as writing, even when the writing is twisted and full of hate, the self-hate that makes writing not only possible but necessary. I hate myself, I hate the people around me, but what I crave is the fulfillment of some ideal." "When I turn fourteen, I lose my Russian accent. I can, in theory, walk up to a girl and the words 'Oh, hi there" would not sound like Okht Hyzer, possibly the name of a Turkish politician. There are three things I want to do in my new incarnation: go to Florida, where I understand that our nation's best and brightest had built themselves a sandy, vice-filled paradise; have a girl tell me that she likes me in some way; and eat all my meals at McDonald's." "The terrible thing about the major belief systems (Leninism, Christianity) is that too often they are constructed along the premise that a difficult past can be traded in for a better future, that all adversity leads to triumph, either through the installation of telegraph poles (Leninism) or at Jesus' knee after physical death (Christianity). But the past is not simply redeemable for a better future. Every moment I have ever experienced as a child is as important as every moment I am experiencing now, or will experience ever. I guess what I'm saying is that not everybody should have children." "I think of my mother and father. Of their constant anxiety. But their anxiety means they still want to live. A year shy of forty, I feel my life entering its second half. I feel my life folding up. I sense the start of that great long leave-taking. I think of myself on the subway platform at Union Square. I am invisible, just a short obstacle others have to get around. Sometimes I wonder: Am I already gone? And then I think of my wife and I feel the whoosh of the number 6 train, the presence of others, the life still within me." Update October 2014 I just learned that Shteyngart did a reading in my town, Kansas City, and I did not know about it. I AM NOT HAPPY ABOUT THIS. I wish I could have been there. But at least he wrote a fun piece in The New Yorker about it: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-t... Update February 2015 I was talking with a friend today and started raving about how good this book was. Now that 2014 has ended, I can definitively say that "Little Failure" was my favorite read of the year.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Pat

    Not my cup of borscht..won this in a Goodreads giveaway for (I hope) an honest review.Gary is a decent writer but it behooves no one to write a biography under the age of 40,particularly one as angst-ridden,juvenile,navel-gazing, and transparently attention-seeking as this.Who will like this book: young,neurotic Jewish men, out of the Woody Allen school of humor/thinking, or any New Yorker afraid he/she won't ever get laid,is basically a schmuck at heart and who is still attached by the umbilica Not my cup of borscht..won this in a Goodreads giveaway for (I hope) an honest review.Gary is a decent writer but it behooves no one to write a biography under the age of 40,particularly one as angst-ridden,juvenile,navel-gazing, and transparently attention-seeking as this.Who will like this book: young,neurotic Jewish men, out of the Woody Allen school of humor/thinking, or any New Yorker afraid he/she won't ever get laid,is basically a schmuck at heart and who is still attached by the umbilical cord to his suffocating parents/culture.This self-confessional was painfully detailed and embarassing to read at times.(I know way more about the author's botched circumcision at age 7 than I needed to).Sorry folks..there is too much out there to read than this diary of a dysfunctional nuclear family. I hope the author ages well and uses his considerable gift with words to focus on the world outside of his personal zone of extreme discomfort.(I also hope he gets a better analyst to help him with his less-than-zero self-esteem.It 's only funny to make fun of yourself when there is a boundary between the deeply personal and the human follies we are all subject to.)

  3. 4 out of 5

    Douglas

    Thanks to Random House for sending me an advance copy. I've read some preliminary reviews on here dismissive of the writer's young age. "How could someone this young write their life story?" After reading this, I have to ask, how could one not? This memoir was filled with the kind of freedom, bravery, and genuineness that reveals itself when we are young and have our whole lives ahead of us. There are many accounts in this book that would have never made it into a life story written by an aging Thanks to Random House for sending me an advance copy. I've read some preliminary reviews on here dismissive of the writer's young age. "How could someone this young write their life story?" After reading this, I have to ask, how could one not? This memoir was filled with the kind of freedom, bravery, and genuineness that reveals itself when we are young and have our whole lives ahead of us. There are many accounts in this book that would have never made it into a life story written by an aging writer attempting to preserve a legacy. No legacy preserving here. This was sheer, brutal honesty. No matter what kind of image portrayed, Shteyngart's motives are clear. He doesn't want to be a little failure. This is a book about his life thus far, but what I found most compelling, it's about a life being lived right now, a life filled with hope and the promise of more novels and stories. Since I'm about the same age as the writer, it's especially intriguing. There's the obvious cultural parallels with my own life, the 80's TV shows, 90's rap, Union Bay t-shirts. But, I was born and bred in Texas and never had cold cabbage soup with sour cream or the unfortunate experiences of being labeled a commie in the years of Reagan. I hope there's a follow-up to his story in years to come. One disappointment is the proposed release date: January 7, 2014. Shteyngart writes with such urgency, and his long journey of immigration and melding into American life leads up to who he is right now, today. I guess I feel bad that his fans won't be able read this until after the holidays.

  4. 4 out of 5

    ·Karen·

    My feelings about young Gary are deeply ambivalent. I couldn't make up my mind if he was incredibly funny or incredibly irritating; probably both, a bit like an over-exuberant puppy that entertains with its appealing clumsiness but then widdles on your best Axminster. Half of it is just my own lack of charity, I suppose, I mean anything that calls itself a Memoir is going to be me, me, me, isn't it? What was I thinking? There is an essential question around memoir that is thrown into high relief My feelings about young Gary are deeply ambivalent. I couldn't make up my mind if he was incredibly funny or incredibly irritating; probably both, a bit like an over-exuberant puppy that entertains with its appealing clumsiness but then widdles on your best Axminster. Half of it is just my own lack of charity, I suppose, I mean anything that calls itself a Memoir is going to be me, me, me, isn't it? What was I thinking? There is an essential question around memoir that is thrown into high relief here: if I've already read Shteyngart's fiction, then I would know most of this stuff already, but if I haven't then why would I be interested in him at all?

  5. 4 out of 5

    Margitte

    While reading the book I started writing the review as the memories of a young immigrant unfolded on the pages. I thought it was excellent, experienced, eloquent writing, gracing the valuable hours I spent reading it. Many hours it turned out to be, for I constantly fell asleep, due to the fact that I was either tired of working physically hard and very long hours for weeks now, or did not have time for a good sitting with the book, or the subject matter turned stale. I was not sure where the bo While reading the book I started writing the review as the memories of a young immigrant unfolded on the pages. I thought it was excellent, experienced, eloquent writing, gracing the valuable hours I spent reading it. Many hours it turned out to be, for I constantly fell asleep, due to the fact that I was either tired of working physically hard and very long hours for weeks now, or did not have time for a good sitting with the book, or the subject matter turned stale. I was not sure where the book was taking me. One of my thoughts, while hanging in there was: How many books do we have to read about the lost generations of the drug-induced eras of the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, Nineties into ad infinitum, and it's getting worse. What was once cult books for the enlightened and the ambitious social climbers, rebellion against an old order, petered out to become endless repeats of the same dark, morose hell of dopey thinking. Like old bread ... Another thought was: I feel like Balaam's Ass, writing this review. I could treat this memoir as the scribbles of a nerdy, narcissistic Jewish friend, a needy, demanding one, or delve deeper into the Jewish comedy phenomenon and totally lose my way among the plethora of labels billowing all over the globe. A third sleep-induced thought was : I was wondering why a youngish person, thirty-eight-years-old, would want to write a memoir, when his parents are still alive, and most of his adult life still pirouette on the horizon. It is, after all, a huge embarrassment to the family within their cultural context. Then I thought about the title of the book and realized I probably would have done the same if my parents called me "Little Failure" and I had enough shutzpah as well as eloquence, to revenge myself on them. My reaction to something like that , in my own humble scribbles, would have been "It takes one to know one!" Not that I think it was the intention in this tale. Mmm, perhaps it was! Beyond the often hilarious, witty, extraordinary eloquence of the tale, lies the image of, and I am borrowing the words of Ralph Ingesoll, ' an elephant being dressed in a hooped skirt and ruffled pants to make her look like a crinoline girl'. In one instance, as a young boy, he wrote a story, "Lenin and His Magical Goose" in which Lenin gets off his granite pedestal, gets onto the goose , flies over to Finland and bombard the 'hapless Fins' with the thick Soviet cheese. Like all satire and comedy, the author's masterful mockery of something unbearable is well hidden if the reader is naive enough not to understand this kind of satire. For those of us who admire and enjoy it, we understand the shudder, masked behind the slapstick, quick-witted jokes, with which the sad tale of the American- Jewish history is told. The intellectual quick-wit and laughter conceal the tragicomedy it really becomes. The underlying wealth of the tradition of Jewish comedy supports this tale. How can we forget people such as Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, George Burns, Bette Midler, Woody Allen, Joan Rivers, Jerry Seinfeld , Billy Crystal, Adam Sandler and probably the world's most beloved comedian, Robin Williams? Comedians are extraordinary entertainers, provide an endless parade of gags, an unstoppable flow of jokes, and a unique slant on life and society. They provide audiences with a diversion, they retell history to lighten up the struggles of participating in the human condition; offer laughter in times of distress. The game of wit in this book is played superbly. The reader laughs at language, at unexpected turns of logic, at improbable situations. Laughter becomes a weapon to confront life's unfairness. There is a slight dollop of screwball zaniness flowing through the text as well, with Gary's loving, mismatched parents, as well as his own love experiences. His parents are constantly competing for his attention, constantly threaten each other with divorce, yet stay glued to the family unit for survival. He struggles to maintain his loyalty of all things Russian, the lessons his parents taught him, while trying to adapt to a new life in America, where the cultural blend is staggering. He also has to prove himself - a sickly asthmatic child with no friends- to his family and the outside world. This memoir tells the story of Igor Semyonovich Shteyngart (the disobedient son and beloved grandson, to his parents and grandmother Ploya); Gary Shteyngart ( to his teachers at the Solomon Schecter School of Queens); Yitzhak Ben Shimon, 'or some shit like that' ( to the Hebrew teachers); Gary Gnu The Third (to his fellow pupils with their Macy's regalia at Stuyvesant); and Shteyn-dawg to his university friends at Oberlin College, Ohio). The various personalities are also the various stages in his development with the behavioral patterns associated with it. Yet another memo to myself: The tone of the prose reminds me of 'Lucky Us' by Amy Bloom. I am unsure why. Perhaps it is the detailed descriptions, the struggle for survival, I don't know. Perhaps it is the fact that I just enjoyed reading both books. The humorous side of Little Failure' also places itself in the company of Giovanni Guareschi's Don Camillo tales. An element of Captain Corelli's Mandoline by Louis de Bernières is also present. First the blatent, in-your-face wit, and then the honest underscore of sadness and challenges waiting for the author and his family. However, the book is not about the Holocaust, neither the Soviet Communist regime's atrocities against its own people. This part of the author's history serves only as reference to the rest of their adaptation to American life. His parents were part of the 'Grain Jews' whose permission to immigrate was negotiated by Jimmy Carter in the 1970s. Gary eventually becomes a successful writer, despite the marriage détente of two mismatched people whom he calls his parents and the negative attention he constantly had to endure from them. It is evident that love comes in different forms, like a few regular slaps against the head, the silent treatments that drives him insane, and the constant reminders of his failures. But not grandmother Polya. (view spoiler)[ "Behind every great Russian child, there is a Russian grandmother who act as chef de cuisine, bodyguard, personal shopper, and PR agent. You can see her in action in the quiet, leafy neighborhood of Rego Park, Queens, running after her thick-limbed grandson, with a dish of buckwheat, fruit, or farmer's cheese..." (hide spoiler)] Grandma Polya's love manifest itself in the daily three-hour gorging process after school. I haven't read the author's other books. However, I can clearly understand why his previous books won various awards. Apart from becoming an insightful, compassionate author, he also became another loud voice of all 'late-comers' to the American dream; all the immigrants from all over the globe. In his quest to be accepted, to be loved, and to conquer his various aspirations, he ultimately becomes more American than the Americans themselves, just because he was trying too hard! He starts right at the beginning of being American, arriving as an immigrant in a country for immigrants, and excel through all the stages of settlement fairly quickly, where as it took most of the established Americans several generations to do the same. As he progresses and develops into the person he aims to be, his need, to associate with the known world of his culture and parents, becomes weaker. Memo: As a writer it can be his strongest or weakest point, depending on how far he is willing to venture off into new territory in his personal life and writing. Memo to self again: His evolution is typical of immigrants to a country. The first generation still honors the old country in culture and language, identifies with it strongly. The second generation will have lesser knowledge and desire to identify with the old teachings, will only use the original language at home, and the third generation can no longer speak the original language, nor have the need to be associated with the original culture. The future will tell. So in this sense, there is nothing new to this immigrant tale. What makes it different is the author's honest, direct approach to his own strengths and weaknesses and the sense of humor, the irony, the satire, he harnesses for his self-mockery. He is no angel at all. In fact, sometimes he is totally unlikable! He summarizes his writing himself very well. (view spoiler)[ P. 277: "I'm desperately trying to have a history, a past. I am flooding myself with memory, melancholy and true. Every memory I repressed at the Solomon Schechter School of Queens, where I pretended to be a good East German, is coming back to me. I write about eating pelmeni dumplings with my mother by the mermaid statue in Yalta. I write about the mechanical chicken I used to play with in the Crimea. About the girl with the one eye in our first apartment in America, the one who played Honeycomb license plates with me. I proudly use words I just picked up, words like "Aubusson", writing next to it, in parentheses, "French rug." I stick the Aubusson into a kind of literary action story called "Sundown at the International", complete with 'jet-black Sikorsky helicopters." Fifteen years later, that story will be expanded into the novel Absurdistan. Sometimes my writing sucks, but sometimes it strives for the truth and it works. My parents are fighting across the pages. I am learning English. I am learning to be second-class. I am learning Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. Faced with an American pizza parlor, my "mother instructs me to order a pizza with meat on it so that I'll have a complete meal." My imagination is allowed to roam in all directions, even ones that fail (especially ones that fail). I hand in a truly strange character sketch of Nikita Khrushchev celebrating a lonely seventieth birthday on a collective farm. I write about my grandmother's fictional meeting with Pope John Paul II." (hide spoiler)] Refreshing, yes. Self-centered, for sure. It's a memoir. (view spoiler)[ " I knew I wanted to write a novel, and I knew what it would be about. When you're twenty-one there really is only one subject. It appears in the mirror each morning, toothbrush in hand." (hide spoiler)] In the end this book is not about revenge at all. It is an honest quest for understanding, for acceptance, and as a memoir, which ensures a stronger message, it is brilliantly done. In a memoir the truth can no longer be "an elephant being dressed in a hooped skirt and ruffled pants to make her look like a crinoline girl" His friend John, who will help him develop his first novel, at one point told Gary what he could not see about himself in his writings: "There is practically nothing writerly about your process. Your acute and omnipresent anxiety causes you to function much more as an accountant or a producer, with his eyes on the bottom line and no understanding of how artists function, rather than as as a young writer, trying to develop a first novel, a new career. In short, you are as mean and ungenerous to yourself as your parents are; they taught you well." My final conclusion: This memoir is much more than just a colorful painting in which satire and irony was used as brushes. It's not only an intellectual, brilliant play with words. It's more than the sum total of a narcissistic brooding, or a self-pity partying memoir. In fact, I was sitting straight up, wide awake, when the ending unfolded. Yes, it was 3.30 in the morning. I gave up many hours of sleep to finish this book! How masterfully plotted! The Chesme Church on Moscow Square, introduces the author's memories to the reader, but surprisingly becomes the axes around which the memoir will return full circle and with good reason. There is even a touch of suspense created, which distinguish this memoir from any others I have read before. The young boy, then young man's struggle, apart from being an immigrant, could have been the story of all of us, if we can dish up the same guts to be THIS honest. In the end, it all came together and it was good. Very good indeed! IN FACT, I RECOMMEND IT TO EVERYONE!

  6. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca

    (4.5) If, like I have, you’ve enjoyed both fiction and nonfiction by Jonathan Safran Foer and Shalom Auslander (whose Hope: A Tragedy was one of my 2012 favorites), you should love this self-deprecating family memoir from the Russian-born (real name: Igor) American novelist. (Oh the irony that his father repeatedly warned him, “Just don’t write like a self-hating Jew”!) Shteyngart’s Ukrainian and Belarussian ancestors ended up in Leningrad, where he was raised as the only child of a failed op (4.5) If, like I have, you’ve enjoyed both fiction and nonfiction by Jonathan Safran Foer and Shalom Auslander (whose Hope: A Tragedy was one of my 2012 favorites), you should love this self-deprecating family memoir from the Russian-born (real name: Igor) American novelist. (Oh the irony that his father repeatedly warned him, “Just don’t write like a self-hating Jew”!) Shteyngart’s Ukrainian and Belarussian ancestors ended up in Leningrad, where he was raised as the only child of a failed opera singer turned mechanical engineer (his father) and an aspiring pianist. Young Igor may have been an asthmatic weakling, but he had an active imagination from the start: he wrote his first novel for his grandmother at the age of five – rewarded with a piece of cheese for each page produced. As the Carter years ceded to the glorious Reagan era, Russian Jews were welcomed to America with open arms, in exchange for Soviet grain. So in 1978, when Igor was six, the family emigrated to Queens, NYC. There the newly christened Gary attended Hebrew school – he had very little English, so was held back a year – and, at age eight, accepted his Jewish birthright by enduring a circumcision. (Yipes! I think the reason this is usually done at the age of eight days is so that the traumatized infant can’t remember the pain...) Gary’s father took computer courses so he could work at a Long Island tech lab, while his mother became a typist-clerk at a watch factory. Did the Shteyngarts assimilate into American culture? Sort of, but not entirely. They went from embracing their Cold War enemy wholeheartedly – Cheap hamburgers and chicken breasts! All the television one could ever watch! – to feeling like they were the enemy here. All along they kept their cheap Eastern European furniture, with the complete works of Chekhov (in the mother tongue) up on the shelf. At least they were white, Shteyngart jokes, so even though they were immigrants they weren’t nearly as bad off as if they were black or Latino. Still, Shteyngart recalls, “I spent my youth as a kind of tuning fork for my parents’ fears, disappointments, and alienation, unbearable for me as well.” Here comes the common theme from an author’s autobiography, though: writing saved his life. He devoured Isaac Asimov magazines and wrote silly sci fi stories and scriptural spoofs (his nickname was “Gary Gnu,” so he wrote a blasphemous anti-Torah called the “Gnorah”) to entertain his classmates – “humor being the last resort of the besieged Jew.” All through Stuyvesant High and Oberlin, he balanced substance abuse (and some studying) with writing manically in his spare time. By the time he graduated from college, he had two-thirds of a draft of his first novel. Chang-rae Lee got him a book deal and persuaded him to study creative writing at Hunter College (instead of Cornell, where he had a scholarship lined up). And the rest, as they say, is history. I’m surprised I’d never really come across Shteyngart’s work before. I’m not sure his novels will quite be to my taste, though I reckon I’ll give Super Sad True Love Story a try. If the novels share this book’s wry wisdom about the fractured immigrant identity and the tortured psychology of loving one’s parents while also resenting and outstripping them, they’ll be worth the read. This just misses out on five stars because I was less interested in his (alcohol- and pot-fueled) high school and college development. The early years are the best. Still, I doubt I’ll read many better memoirs this year.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Shea

    This was my mother's review of this book, and I don't think I could've said it any better than her: "I have never encountered a family which I found more unappealing. The whole bunch. Gary did his best to portray his family as typical Russian, Jewish immigrants and then tried to justify their boorish, cruel, racist, stingy, ungracious behavior. I refuse to believe that all Russian jewish immigrants are like the Shteyngarts. Gary is ridiculous as well even as he completes his psychoanalysis. A us This was my mother's review of this book, and I don't think I could've said it any better than her: "I have never encountered a family which I found more unappealing. The whole bunch. Gary did his best to portray his family as typical Russian, Jewish immigrants and then tried to justify their boorish, cruel, racist, stingy, ungracious behavior. I refuse to believe that all Russian jewish immigrants are like the Shteyngarts. Gary is ridiculous as well even as he completes his psychoanalysis. A user with a cruel streak. Lots of people, American born and immigrants alike, work very hard and not all of them have much to show for it. These people have a paid-off home, summers in the Catskills, private, first-rate education and vehicles to cart their ungrateful asses to Florida vacations. They are welcome to their shared misery."

  8. 5 out of 5

    Fabian

    Decades too early, this memoir is about the reconciliation of a writer with his immigrant past-- a full-on "acceptance." I loathed the main character to a certain point-- he is trying desperately to "fit in"... an exercise I myself find totally useless (when in doubt, freak 'em out!). But dangnabbit... this is one of our premiere contemporary writers. I am actually kinda glad now that his neomasterpiece "Super Sad True Love Story" did not nab the Pulitzer-- humility being a strong virtue. Why so Decades too early, this memoir is about the reconciliation of a writer with his immigrant past-- a full-on "acceptance." I loathed the main character to a certain point-- he is trying desperately to "fit in"... an exercise I myself find totally useless (when in doubt, freak 'em out!). But dangnabbit... this is one of our premiere contemporary writers. I am actually kinda glad now that his neomasterpiece "Super Sad True Love Story" did not nab the Pulitzer-- humility being a strong virtue. Why so early, why THIS? I think he shoulda waited till he has produced at least two other "SSTLS"s and a handful of "Russian Debutantes." Minimal. & this doesn't recount what an aspiring writer really wants to know: "How did you get to that Holy Grail, the ever coveted and elusive first book deal?" Shteyngart makes it sound way too easy, but, as the saying goes, a great magician (like a good ho) never gives up his tricks. Shteyngart's philosophy is like every other successful writers': WRITE EVERYDAY!! But the description of the family is pretty heartwarming. By the end, you know where the guy is coming from. But I'm afraid it becomes apparent that Shteyngart, expert proponent of 4 times a week psychoanalysis, has constructed this as a way to come to terms with his now and future greatness, as well as his now and future success. It is not Gary Shteyngart who's a little failure; it is the degree of his success from now on. I foresee terribly little failure in that!

  9. 5 out of 5

    Ushan

    By age 40 George Orwell has been a colonial policeman in Burma, a hop picker in England, a patient in a Parisian charity hospital, and a volunteer fighter in the Spanish Civil War. Kurt Vonnegut has been a soldier, a POW, and a father of three who also adopted three of his dead sister's children. Paul Theroux has served in the Peace Corps in Malawi and has taught in Uganda and in Singapore. Therefore, when Orwell, Vonnegut and Theroux write about their lives, it is an interesting read. Gary (an By age 40 George Orwell has been a colonial policeman in Burma, a hop picker in England, a patient in a Parisian charity hospital, and a volunteer fighter in the Spanish Civil War. Kurt Vonnegut has been a soldier, a POW, and a father of three who also adopted three of his dead sister's children. Paul Theroux has served in the Peace Corps in Malawi and has taught in Uganda and in Singapore. Therefore, when Orwell, Vonnegut and Theroux write about their lives, it is an interesting read. Gary (an Americanization of Igor) Shteyngart, an only child of a Leningrad mechanical engineer, was brought to the United States in 1979, at age 7, so he wouldn't have to serve in the Soviet Army. He goes to a Hebrew private school, a science-intensive high school and an expensive liberal arts college, where he drinks, smokes pot and has love affairs with other students. The main thing that worries him all the time is to what degree he is an American, to what a Jew, and to what a Russian; that life can offer more interesting things than these worries never enters his mind. Gary does not start a family or acquire a profession other than writing, and the range of topics he can competently write about is fairly small. I don't think this offers enough material for an interesting memoir.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jill

    If it’s true that every one of us is a book just waiting to be written, then it’s particularly so for Gary Shteyngart. His memoir, Little Failure, should be taught as an example of how memoirs should be written. It’s courageous, poignant, often bitingly funny, entertaining and achingly real. There’s nary a false note in it. At a surface level, the memoir delves into the challenges of bridging two disparate cultures: the monochromatic country of Soviet Russia and the almost too colorful, let-it-al If it’s true that every one of us is a book just waiting to be written, then it’s particularly so for Gary Shteyngart. His memoir, Little Failure, should be taught as an example of how memoirs should be written. It’s courageous, poignant, often bitingly funny, entertaining and achingly real. There’s nary a false note in it. At a surface level, the memoir delves into the challenges of bridging two disparate cultures: the monochromatic country of Soviet Russia and the almost too colorful, let-it-all-hang-out United States of America. Brought to this country as a young boy of seven – right at the height of the Evil Empire fears – Gary (formerly Igor) is advised to “…get rid of the great furry overcoat. Trim my unkempt, bushy hair a little. Stop talking to myself in Russian. Be more, you know NORMAL.” Caught between his parents’ frugal and cautious life outlook and his own desire to fit in and be loved by his new classmates, little asthmatic Gary Shteyngart’s caustic wit (dubbed “Snotty” and “Little Failure” by his parents) is alive and well. The thrill of receiving a Publishers Clearing House direct mail piece stating “You Have Just Won Five Million Dollars! (would the U.S. ever lie?) or, at ten years old, given the present every boy wants – a circumcision – is hilariously funny. But look a little deeper and this memoir is not about the immigrant experience as much as it is about one boy’s experience. Gary becomes “a kind of tuning fork for my parents’ fears, disappointments, and alienation”, the envoy between not just warring countries but warring parents, striving to reconcile parents who love him deeply yet can only display that love through corporal punishment (father) or deep silent treatment (mother). “The greatest lies of our childhood are about who will keep us safe,” Mr. Shteyngart writes. As he lurches from childhood to the elite Stuyvesant High School and eventually, Oberlin College, he seems bent on fulfilling his parents’ prophecy of becoming a failure while at the same time setting the groundwork for his eventual success. The making of a writer is also front-and-center here: “I write because there is nothing as joyful as writing, even when the writing is twisted and full of hate, the self-hate that makes writing not only possible but necessary.” We see the seeds of Gary Shteyngart’s future profession early on in some of his imaginative sci-fi effort titled “The Chalenge” and that talent takes wing despite his best efforts to sabotage it. By removing that veil that stands between a well-known author and his readers, Gary Shteyngart seems to be asking his readers to do what he frequently urges his parents, lovers, and mentors to do: accept and love him. There is something brave, endearing, and just a bit heartbreaking about that quest. Yet for this reader, it succeeds. I closed these pages really liking Mr. Shteyngart and admiring his ability to strive for not so much forgiveness as understanding. This Little Failure is a big success.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Janet

    Another uneven maddening crazy brilliant Shteyngart book, this time a memoir. The tale begins in early childhood in Leningrad, follows the family's emigration to New York, his attendance at an orthodox Jewish school and attempts to Americanize himself, the shock of entering the highly competitive Stuyvesant High School for Math and Science, entry into Oberlin, all the way through to becoming the Shteyngart we basically have today. I have to say, the first half of this book is beyond priceless. I Another uneven maddening crazy brilliant Shteyngart book, this time a memoir. The tale begins in early childhood in Leningrad, follows the family's emigration to New York, his attendance at an orthodox Jewish school and attempts to Americanize himself, the shock of entering the highly competitive Stuyvesant High School for Math and Science, entry into Oberlin, all the way through to becoming the Shteyngart we basically have today. I have to say, the first half of this book is beyond priceless. I adored his description of his Russian childhood and especially the intricate emotionality of his family life, and his layered difficulties finding a place for himself in American life. But as the story unfolds and he becomes more and more American, I found myself less and less interested. I too went to college, I too had been a young person having relationships and so on. I did find it intriguing that he always found a mentor/patron for himself, an older man who paid the bills--one of whom was a gay sugar daddy whom he nevertheless never slept with if the story is to be believed. There was also a fascinating relationship with a woman who had another lover as well. But in general, the more familiar his story became, the less I cared. He hung the tale from the gossamer thread of 'how I become a writer' which I'm sure was huge for him--but the thrill of his first contract etc was so much less interesting to me than his grandmother left behind in Russia and his parents looming 'razvot' (divorce). And the deeper flaw--I found Shteyngart far kinder to himself (he was a horrible little momser) in this book than the merciless eye he usually employs when describing his characters ... He lets himself off the hook, again and again--the opposite situation to that which you usually find among writers, who generally are tougher on themselves in a memoir, and more empathetic and generous with their fictional characters in their novels. Yet I wouldn't have missed that brilliant first half of Little Failure (what his father called him, as well as 'Snotty' and "Weakling" in that odd Russian penchant for amalgamating endearment and blunt criticism) for anything, and will probably read it again.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Scott

    I've tried now three times, and I guess Gary Shteyngart and are just going to have to call it quits for good. I made it through about half of his first novel, the Russian's Debutante's Daughter, before giving up, and I bailed even more quickly on Super Sad True Love Story. But people love these books! The heck's my problem?! I can't quite figure it out--his uneven tone? his ham-fisted sense of humor?--but whatever, I figured maybe, finally, Shteygart writing straight-forwardly about his own life I've tried now three times, and I guess Gary Shteyngart and are just going to have to call it quits for good. I made it through about half of his first novel, the Russian's Debutante's Daughter, before giving up, and I bailed even more quickly on Super Sad True Love Story. But people love these books! The heck's my problem?! I can't quite figure it out--his uneven tone? his ham-fisted sense of humor?--but whatever, I figured maybe, finally, Shteygart writing straight-forwardly about his own life (rather than the thinly-disguised version of same in his fiction) would be where he and I would finally click. Alas, it was not to be. I mean, I'm not a total hater. I really enjoyed chunks of Little Failure--the story of his life from birth in Soviet Russia to immigration in the late 1970s to Queens through to adulthood, as a writer in Brooklyn--especially his Hebrew school days in the borough, and his high school days at Stuyvesant, and his college days at Oberlin. Much of this middle part I could relate to: his longing to fit in, his bafflement as to how that could ever be accomplished, and the tools he employs (drugs, booze, deliberate ridiculousness) to make it happen. The scene when he first feels like things--eg, his life--might be ok, an uneventful trip up to Sheep Meadow to play ultimate with some kids he'd just met, is understated, moving, lovely. And although IMO the misses outnumber the hits by a significant margin, Shteygart does deliver more than a few laugh-out-loud funny lines here. But I just couldn't ever really understand or care enough about or get invested in his intense, abusive (in a loving way?) relationship with his parents, which gets by far the most page-time in Little Failure. And although I admired his honesty, Shteygart's neediness got tedious pretty quickly, and it's really the dominant theme/emotion of the book.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Leyla Farah

    I kept waiting for this guy to have some sort of epiphany. Some sort of revelation. I kept waiting for him to become better. But he was an annoying little snot at the beginning and he remained an annoying little snot through to the end. Why that experience deserved a book is beyond me.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca Thieme-baeseman

    Rambling first two chapters. Overall repetitive and wordy. I was told it was comparable to David Sedaris which is a huge lie.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    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 Jewis 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/...

  16. 4 out of 5

    Marsha

    I don't understand the great reviews this book got. To me it was 349 (!) pages of annoying whining, and excruciating detail about bits of his personal life that were not the least bit interesting. Clearly I am missing something.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Michelle

    "Little Failure" is an intriguing family memoir and coming of age story authored by Gary Shteyngart (GS); he writes about his Russian Jewish upbringing, leaving the USSR in 1978 and immigrating to the US, where his parents settled in Little Neck, Queens, NY. He writes about attending a prestigious Jewish high school, and Oberlin College, where his parents didn't fully understand his decision to become a writer instead of a lawyer. A trip in 2011 to St. Petersburg with his parents would uncover u "Little Failure" is an intriguing family memoir and coming of age story authored by Gary Shteyngart (GS); he writes about his Russian Jewish upbringing, leaving the USSR in 1978 and immigrating to the US, where his parents settled in Little Neck, Queens, NY. He writes about attending a prestigious Jewish high school, and Oberlin College, where his parents didn't fully understand his decision to become a writer instead of a lawyer. A trip in 2011 to St. Petersburg with his parents would uncover undisclosed family history, which would led to further understanding/acceptance of his heritage/mental illness. GS was in psychoanalysis for 12 years. GS upbringing was riddled with panic and anxiety, he was asthmatic, which led his parents to shelter and hyper focus on his needs, they also fought and argued constantly. GS was frightened of everything growing up: "Because you are Jewish", his mother explained, their disappointment magnified further by calling their only son "Failurchka/Little Failure". When he entered school his Russian name "Igor" was changed to "Gary" so he wouldn't be teased. GS wasn't a particularly good student, but gained popularity with his ability to entertain telling stories. By the time he was 14, he lost much of his Russian accent. At Oberlin College, GS fell into an almost typical experience of many students involving alcohol/drug use. "Scary Gary" seemed timid and awkward, with his hand holding "non-girlfriend" Nadine, relationships developed eventually with J.Z. (who left him for a musician living in a van), and "Pamma Hamma Slamma" she attacked another boyfriend with a hammer. GS eventually married, offering little insight of his wife/marriage. Gordon Lish, famous for editing the writing of Raymond Carver, taught a semester at Oberlin. GS recalled her spaghetti top dress, and many of the students dropping creative writing altogether. GS began writing about Moscow/Russia or the "immigrant fiction" genre, and studied Marxist politics. I liked this memoir, and waited longer to read it, checking it out at the public library. GS topics of mental health issues were of particular interest, others not so much. I liked the fact that GS maintained compassionate/forgiving relationship with his parents; many of their attitudes were obviously culturally related, as they remained together, avoiding divorce, creating a life long stable marriage. Included are many excellent photos.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Kressel Housman

    Reading this book was like reading my own life in a parallel universe. For part of his childhood, author Gary Shteyngart lived mere blocks from where I was growing up, which means we were neighbors for those years because he is only four years younger than I am. He also had the education I’ve always wished for myself: a Hebrew elementary school (right across from where I took piano lessons) and Stuyvesant High School (where my best friend went, leaving me desperately lonely in ninth grade). Now Reading this book was like reading my own life in a parallel universe. For part of his childhood, author Gary Shteyngart lived mere blocks from where I was growing up, which means we were neighbors for those years because he is only four years younger than I am. He also had the education I’ve always wished for myself: a Hebrew elementary school (right across from where I took piano lessons) and Stuyvesant High School (where my best friend went, leaving me desperately lonely in ninth grade). Now that I’ve read this book, I realize those wishes for myself wouldn’t necessarily have spelled out a better life. Gary was bullied in the Hebrew school and introduced to pot-smoking at Stuyvesant. I wasn’t introduced to pot until college – which is when he took it to new levels of abuse – but it all goes to prove that most people, no matter where they go to school, end up making the same regrettable mistakes. Now that I’ve established the similarities, I’ll go for the differences. Gary was born Igor Shteyngart in the former Soviet Union. He didn’t settle in Queens until he was about seven, and a large part of the reason he was bullied was that he was an immigrant and therefore “weird” in his classmates’ eyes. The book begins and ends in Russia; it starts with his early childhood and ends with a visit back to his birthplace with his parents in 2011. Along the way, he confronts all the darkness of his soul: his desperation to “fit in” in America, his first few romantic disasters, and above all, a lifetime of verbal abuse from his parents. But don’t worry; he’s funny, so there are a few laugh-out-loud moments and most definitely redemption, not just in his final trip to Russia, but in the story of the publication of his first book. I can only hope that’s another parallel to my own life. You see, thanks to Gary Shteyngart, I’ve begun working on my own memoir (again). If one awkward Jewish kid from Queens can do it, so can another. So, thank you, Gary Shteyngart. You get 5 grateful stars.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Chaitra

    I'll start with a disclaimer. Even though I read memoirs more than any other form of non-fiction, I don't like them as much as I would like to. Mostly they're rose tinted, or they're the opposite. In any case, the idea is that I can't objectively write a review for someone's account of their life. That said, Little Failure is ideal. It's somewhere in between. Shteyngart portrays himself as a jerk of the highest order, but a product of his dysfunctional family. (What a family! And what a waste it I'll start with a disclaimer. Even though I read memoirs more than any other form of non-fiction, I don't like them as much as I would like to. Mostly they're rose tinted, or they're the opposite. In any case, the idea is that I can't objectively write a review for someone's account of their life. That said, Little Failure is ideal. It's somewhere in between. Shteyngart portrays himself as a jerk of the highest order, but a product of his dysfunctional family. (What a family! And what a waste it would be had Shteyngart not been a writer!) It's got a lot of kvetching, immigrant panic attacks and other fun stuff. I guess you either like it or not depending on if you like such a thing. I don't, not usually, but I like how Shteyngart writes. His memoir follows a similar roadmap as that of his fiction. It's laugh out loud funny and it's heartbreaking, sometimes simultaneously. I'm pretty glad he wrote this, lived the life he lived. It sounds honest, about as honest as memoirs can get. 5 stars. Edit: According to me, the fact that he is young still is an advantage. He can follow it up with a part 2 some twenty years later. I really can't understand that criticism, actually. Older does not automatically mean wiser or less narcissistic.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Patricia

    "Abandoned ship early on" alert. Although I did find myself laughing a few times in the first several chapters, I found Little Failure a circular, repetitive read, and decided to abandon ship. At my age, I don't have the time for books that don't grab me within the first few chapters. I actually found Shteyngart's family pretty awful, and I quickly tired of his "pity me, I'm a poor schmuck-isms." So, back to the library it goes. I think that humor (and a humorous memoir at that) is probably one "Abandoned ship early on" alert. Although I did find myself laughing a few times in the first several chapters, I found Little Failure a circular, repetitive read, and decided to abandon ship. At my age, I don't have the time for books that don't grab me within the first few chapters. I actually found Shteyngart's family pretty awful, and I quickly tired of his "pity me, I'm a poor schmuck-isms." So, back to the library it goes. I think that humor (and a humorous memoir at that) is probably one of the more difficult genre in translation. Perhaps a reader whose childhood and family was similar to Shteyngart's would have loved this memoir. I didn't find it at all relatable.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Lubinka Dimitrova

    3,5 stars, but I'll round it up to 4 thanks to the nostalgia this book woke in me.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Krista

    The goal of politics is to make us children. The more heinous the system the more this is true. The Soviet system worked best when its adults -- its men, in particular -- were welcomed to stay at the emotional level of not-particularly-advanced teenagers. Often at a dinner table, a male Homo sovietcus will say something uncouth, hurtful, disgusting because this is the teenager's right and prerogative, this is what the system has raised him to be, and his wife will say, Da tishe! -- Be quiet! -- The goal of politics is to make us children. The more heinous the system the more this is true. The Soviet system worked best when its adults -- its men, in particular -- were welcomed to stay at the emotional level of not-particularly-advanced teenagers. Often at a dinner table, a male Homo sovietcus will say something uncouth, hurtful, disgusting because this is the teenager's right and prerogative, this is what the system has raised him to be, and his wife will say, Da tishe! -- Be quiet! -- and then look around the table, embarrassed. And the man will laugh bitterly to himself and say, Nu ladno, it's nothing, and wave away the venom he has left on the table. This goes a long way towards explaining the family that Gary (Igor) Shteyngart was born into, but it's only a part of the picture: not only was Shteyngart born behind the Iron Curtain, but his parents were Soviet Jews, with the pogroms and the Holocaust looming in recent memory. When President Carter brokered a grain for Jews swap in 1977, the Shteyngarts were allowed to emigrate to the U.S., and for the first time, Gary's parents had to explain to the seven-year-old boy that everything he had been told his entire life was a lie -- America wasn't evil, and perhaps, the Soviets were. Being able to openly practise their religion for the first time in their lives, the Shteyngarts enroll Gary in Hebrew school (where he is mercilessly bullied as an outsider; as the Stinky Russian Bear) and even force upon him a botched circumcision at eight. With no friends, no connection to the community, and parents who scream obscenities at each other (and threaten divorce) every night, Gary is, quite possibly, the most miserable little boy in the world. In Little Failure (the title based on Shteyngart's mother's nickname for him), the immigrant-as-told-by-a-child story is heart-wrenching, the abuse he suffered at his parents' hands revolting (with his father's "hits to the neck" and his mother pretending he didn't exist for days at a time), and it's easy to cheer for Gary to find a way out; gratifying to see that he found a way into society through storytelling. I write because there is nothing as joyful as writing, even when the writing is twisted and full of hate, the self-hate that makes writing not only possible but necessary. I hate myself, I hate the people around me, but what I crave is the fulfillment of some ideal. But as unlikeable as the parents are, there's something really unlikeable about Gary himself (and I suppose it was bravely honest of him to let himself be seen this way). Although his parents have no television and still eat the cold cabbage borscht and farmer's cheese with canned peaches that turn Gary's stomach, he also spends three hours after school every day with a beloved grandmother who sets him in front of her TV and fetches and cooks for him anything he'd desire. Gary complains about the low level of education that he received at his Hebrew school (where he eventually became a bit of a bully himself), yet his grades were sufficient to gain entry to the prestigious Stuyvesant High School -- and although he strongarms his mother into buying him designer clothes so that he can finally fit in with the mainstream, he promptly becomes a drunk and stoner who neglects his studies and risks squandering his opportunity. He then decides to follow a girl out to Oberlin College (instead of accepting one of his quasi-Ivy League school offers) and becomes "Scary Gary": a kid constantly stoned and drunk and poured into his dorm room every night. I couldn't help but think of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers here, when he explained why so many late 20th century NYC lawyers and doctors were Jewish (because their immigrant parents worked tirelessly to provide their sons with first rate educations in order to launch them into white collar professions). Gary's parents also hoped for him to become a lawyer, and even though it's obvious that that would have been a soul-destroying move for the budding writer, there's an off-putting tone of ingratitude over all these years; like as though he was exploiting both his parents' Soviet Jew penchant for self-sacrifice and the American postmodern nihilism of the time (and even though I appreciate that he was poised between these two worlds, it reads as only fair that he should have placed himself in one or the other: accept the sacrifices and do his best to earn them or embrace hedonism at his own cost). But not liking Gary Shteyngart doesn't mean that I didn't like this book -- it's sadly funny and far enough from my own experience to be really interesting. I can't imagine transforming from a proud Soviet -- daydreaming about one day gloriously joining the Red Army -- into a Reagan Republican, griping about Welfare Queens and fearing WWIII. Even though I haven't read any of Shteyngart's novels, it was interesting to see him tying his real life experiences into the fiction he's written (and it may prove interesting to have discovered him in this order). I do wonder at the potential betrayal of writing so critically about his parents while they are still alive (and as I read that they were waiting for a Russian publisher before reading this book, it couldn't have been vetted by them pre-publication), but that seems to be in keeping with the cool détente Gary has arrived at with his family. And one last complaint: early in Little Failure, Gary has a panic attack in a book store when he sees a picture of a church from his Leningrad neighbourhood. He promises to tell the story this picture dredges up later, and when it finally is revealed near the very end of the book, I thought, "What? That's it?" (view spoiler)[ As a three-year-old, Gary and his father were walking back from flying a toy helicopter at the church. As he was speaking, his father made a sweeping arm gesture that hit Gary in the nose -- maybe an accident, maybe because Gary was misbehaving -- and his nose began to bleed. Seeing a picture of the church 35 years later, apparently, brought back a flood of abusive memories. (hide spoiler)] Don't listen to the naysayers who quibble that a 40-year-old hasn't lived enough to write a memoir; there is plenty to chew on in this book. And did I mention it's funny, too? Let’s start with my surname: Shteyngart. A German name whose insane Sovietized spelling, eye-watering bunching of consonants (just one i between the h and t and you got some pretty nice “Shit” there), and overall unattractiveness has cost me a lot of human warmth. “Mr., uh, I can’t pronounce this … Shit … Shit … Shitfart?” the sweet Alabama girl at reception giggles. “Is, uh, a single bed okay for you?” What do you think, honey, I want to say. Do you think a Shitfart gets to share a bed?

  23. 4 out of 5

    John

    A Memoir for the Ages Courtesy of America’s 21st Century Mark Twain Years before he graduated from our high school alma mater, I met the likes of Gary Shteyngart in the narrow hallways and staircases of that aging, decrepit high school building on East 15th Street; other Garys spending hours smoking pot and drinking beer in the adjoining park named Stuyvesant Square, holding forth on philosophical discussions ranging from Freudian psychoanalysis to a potential nuclear war between the United State A Memoir for the Ages Courtesy of America’s 21st Century Mark Twain Years before he graduated from our high school alma mater, I met the likes of Gary Shteyngart in the narrow hallways and staircases of that aging, decrepit high school building on East 15th Street; other Garys spending hours smoking pot and drinking beer in the adjoining park named Stuyvesant Square, holding forth on philosophical discussions ranging from Freudian psychoanalysis to a potential nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Yet none ever wrote memorable prose as graceful or as hilarious as his, blessed with ample wit, sensitivity and observation. Nor can I think of any published former student of acclaimed memoirist Frank McCourt – who had retired from teaching English and creative writing the semester before Shteyngart’s arrival – writing anything as outrageously funny about their Stuyvesant High School years as he has done in “Little Failure: A Memoir”. (His terse description of earth science teacher John Orna – whom I knew as the faculty advisor of my geology club – is both hilarious and true. Readers who may doubt his humorous affection for Stuyvesant High School should GOOGLE his commencement speech at the Class of 2011’s graduation, seeking its YouTube videos.) With the possible exception of Frank McCourt, I can’t think of anyone who has written a memoir on an emigrant’s experience in the United States as profoundly moving, irresistibly hilarious, and surprisingly insightful; an engrossing saga warranting favorable comparisons not only with McCourt - who was born in Brooklyn, NY, left when he was very young, and didn’t return to America until he was nineteen - but especially, Mark Twain, quite possibly American literature’s greatest humorist and satirist. With “Little Failure: A Memoir”, Shteyngart demonstrates again that he is our 21st Century Mark Twain, rivalling the former’s skill in using humor in making readers laugh and think about everything from relations between the sexes to surviving primary and middle school as a young Russian emigrant barely able to speak American English, speaking a heavily accented version until the age of fourteen. With “Little Failure”, Shteyngart demonstrates anew why he has been dubbed by The New York Times as “one of his generation’s most original and exhilarating writers”, taking us on a whirlwind trek spanning four decades and two continents; a trek I found impossible to put down, even missing a transfer at a Brooklyn subway station because I was so engrossed with his insightful humor. “Little Failure: A Memoir” is not just a humorous memoir worthy of comparison with “Angela’s Ashes”, McCourt’s finest. It’s a compelling saga of a young Russian-American emigrant’s survival in New York City, learning to become as American as his Soloman Schechter School classmates. (The progressive, religiously-oriented Jewish school in Queens which he attended for his primary and middle school education.) It’s a memorable exploration into the education of a young writer, as noteworthy in its own right, as any book on this subject written by Mark Twain, Frank McCourt or Pete Hamill - to name but a few - and one that is destined to be viewed as an instant classic in the genre, chronicling a literary life that begins in pre-adolescence as a would-be writer of bad Soviet Union-inspired space opera science fiction to the literary titan that he is today. It’s also a compelling examination of Shteyngart’s life-long struggles to please his parents – the title is an Anglicized version of the quasi-Russian word “Failurchka”, his mother’s less than affectionate nickname for him - and how he succeeds - and fails – in falling in love with girls, and later, women, from his late adolescence to the present. Much to his credit, Shteyngart never ceases to amaze readers with his self-deprecating wit, having described emigrating from his country of birth as a “Jew for Grain” exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States. Despite the obstacles placed in his path, Shteyngart never comes across as someone traumatized – or embittered – by them, always relying on his witty, humorous prose to win the reader’s attention and affection, even under the worst circumstances one can imagine. According to his Random House editor, David Ebershoff, himself, a notable writer of fiction (“The Danish Girl”), Gary Shteyngart has written a literary classic. May I be bold to suggest that a century from now this superb memoir will be as well regarded and as celebrated as Twain’s best; without question, “Little Failure: A Memoir” is one of the great memoirs of our time, worthy of comparison with Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes”, Pete Hamill’s “A Drinking Life”, Mary Karr’s “The Liar’s Club” and Rick Moody’s “The Black Veil: A Memoir with Digressions”. Shteyngart’s hilarious, heart-warming prose will entertain and delight many readers, keeping them spellbound from the first page to the last, and making his debut memoir among the most discussed, most anticipated, books of 2014.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Paul Gleason

    After reading Little Failure, I'm convinced of what I suspected when I picked up The Russian Debutante's Handbook about a dozen years ago: that Gary Shteyngart is America's greatest living writer of long prose narrative. Now, the sentence that I just wrote is so clumsy, so badly worded, so BAD, that you'll appreciate Shteyngart all the more when you crack open Little Failure - his first memoir - and start reading its exuberant pages. You won't want to put the book down. But, heck, if you've read After reading Little Failure, I'm convinced of what I suspected when I picked up The Russian Debutante's Handbook about a dozen years ago: that Gary Shteyngart is America's greatest living writer of long prose narrative. Now, the sentence that I just wrote is so clumsy, so badly worded, so BAD, that you'll appreciate Shteyngart all the more when you crack open Little Failure - his first memoir - and start reading its exuberant pages. You won't want to put the book down. But, heck, if you've read any of the novels, which include the Handbook (2002), Absurdistan (2006), and Super Sad True Love Story (2010), you know what it's like for Shteyngart to hook you with his prose. Little Failure, with its hilarious picture captions and prose that's so alive you can almost feel its breaths and heartbeats, is part Joyce and, most crucially, part Nabokov. It's Shteyngart's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, chock full of the humor for which Joyce makes you search in his irony but which Gary puts on full display in his slapstick, potty, stoner, and pop culture comedy. Shteyngart's great because he's abandoned all modernist and postmodernist attempts at distancing himself from himself, like Joyce does when he creates Stephen Dedalus as a thinly transparent veil in A Portrait. Both Joyce and Shteyngart are self-deprecating, but Gary wears his heart on his sleeve. He's a hot-blooded writer in a cool time. So was his obvious major influence in writing Little Failure - Vladimir Nabokov. Shteyngart even refers to one of the best passages from Speak, Memory in Little Failure, solidifying the relationship between Nabokov's memoir and his own. Nabokov often gets accused of being a cool aesthete. Nothing could be further from the truth. When you read Speak, Memory, you encounter a man who loves his father more than life itself. In fact, Speak, Memory could be the key to unlocking Nabokov's moral universe. It's easy to contrast his father's generosity to the selfish totalitarians who plague books like Lolita, Invitation to a Beheading, Pale Fire, and Bend Sinister. Shteygart's quest in Little Failure, which parallels the quest of many of the protagonists of his novels, is to find the love that Nabokov loses when his father is assassinated. Gary looks everywhere: his parents, his friends, his lovers, and his mentors. I won't reveal the result of his search, but I can say that happy writers produce happy books - and, despite his self-deprecating analysis of his anxiety and depression in Little Failure, Shteyngart seems happy. Again, the exuberant prose tells you more that I ever could. But the thing about the search is that it universalizes (and I know postmodernists hate that verb) the quest for love. Shteyngart wants the same thing before and after his family leave the USSR for the USA. (Gary seems much less of an exile that Joyce or Nabokov because he grew up in the USA.) So why is Gary so damned good? Well, he retains the interest in pop culture and the immigrant experience of, say, a Thomas Pynchon or a Salman Rushdie. But his books are more accessible. There's not an ounce of pomposity in the boy from Leningrad. Shteyngart's also funny as hell. I know I said this above, but I want to drive home the point by saying that you won't read a page of Little Failure - or any of the novels, for that matter - without smiling and, sometimes, laughing out loud. So here's to Gary for wearing his heart on his sleeve and for writing books that dare to entertain just as much as they enlighten. Didn't Horace say something about something similar being the purpose of literature?

  25. 5 out of 5

    Taryn

    Sometimes the right book comes along at just the right time. Last week, after a couple personal setbacks that caused more disappointment than they really warranted, I was in search of perspective. I found it in a double cheeseburger and Gary Shteyngart's hilarious and poignant memoir. My research has shown the combination of a good book and a cholesterol bump to be nearly 100% effective at reversing bad moods. Shteyngart was born Igor, not Gary, in the former Soviet Union. He recounts his childh Sometimes the right book comes along at just the right time. Last week, after a couple personal setbacks that caused more disappointment than they really warranted, I was in search of perspective. I found it in a double cheeseburger and Gary Shteyngart's hilarious and poignant memoir. My research has shown the combination of a good book and a cholesterol bump to be nearly 100% effective at reversing bad moods. Shteyngart was born Igor, not Gary, in the former Soviet Union. He recounts his childhood love affair with a Lenin statue, his father's alternating affection and derision, his grandmother's tendency to stuff him with American junk food, and his own journey to become a published writer and functioning adult. We sit alongside him in Hebrew school in Queens, flinching as the other students mock his accent and foreign habits. We follow him to Stuyvesant High School, where he suddenly has to work to succeed, and then on to Oberlin College, where he is almost immediately abandoned by the girl he followed there. We listen in on his conversation with author Chang-Rae Lee, which leads to graduate school admission and a book deal for his first novel. There's no doubt Shteyngart is a gifted humorist (just take a look at the photos and captions accompanying each chapter break), but he elevates the memoir beyond cheap laughs. He treats the darker parts of his life gently and honestly and entirely without self-pity. Shteyngart's parents are the main supporting cast here, and he portrays them as the complex, shaded people that they likely are. His father clearly loves him, but is also hypercritical and competitive. Even after Gary is a published author, a critical and commercial success, his parents quote him bad reviews over the phone. In one central anecdote, when Gary is a broke college student, his mother sells him chicken cutlets at $1.40 apiece. And here's the part that lifted me up out of my funk: Shteyngart was, for some unfathomable reason, rejected by the Iowa Writer's Workshop. The guy who wasn't good enough for their prestigious MFA program has won awards for every single novel he's published. Eat that, Iowa. For the full text of this recommendation and many others, please visit www.readingwithhippos.com

  26. 5 out of 5

    K

    With Gary Shteyngart I tend to be more enthusiastic about the parts than about the overall whole. I remember reading The Russian Debutante's Handbook, falling all over myself laughing at the first chapter and gradually losing interest as the book progressed. Here too, there were many great moments but unfortunately not as much sustained momentum. I do love the guy's writing. I love, in spite of myself, the whole angsty Jewish thing even if I find it a bit hackneyed at times. This book reminded me With Gary Shteyngart I tend to be more enthusiastic about the parts than about the overall whole. I remember reading The Russian Debutante's Handbook, falling all over myself laughing at the first chapter and gradually losing interest as the book progressed. Here too, there were many great moments but unfortunately not as much sustained momentum. I do love the guy's writing. I love, in spite of myself, the whole angsty Jewish thing even if I find it a bit hackneyed at times. This book reminded me of Foreskin's Lament in many ways though it was less bitter and religion played a more marginal role. I related to Gary's conflicted identity and to his vivid descriptions of his critical but devoted Russian parents. Gary willingly portrayed himself as a bit of a jerk, which sometimes felt admirably honest and sometimes felt off-putting as well as self-indulgent and navel-gazing. Overall I found Gary sympathetic in spite of himself, even if there were times when I wanted to look away or cringe. I'm not sure I fully appreciated the book, or my experience of reading it, but I did develop an affinity for Gary. He's about my age, and I remember when a whole bunch of Russians suddenly arrived on the shores of America and we Jewish elementary school students tried to welcome them into our schools. The language and culture gaps proved challenging, and I often found myself wondering what went on in their heads but not sure how to ask. In that way, reading Gary's memoir felt enlightening and interesting. I guess what I'm trying to say is that, while I didn't love the book, I loved a lot of things about it. Three stars. And a big thank-you to Netgalley for providing me with a review copy and making me feel validated in my goodreads addiction. ;)

  27. 4 out of 5

    Nancy

    I read most of the book, including skipping to the end so I think I got a good feel for it. I guess I should give Mr. Shteyngart credit for really writing about himself, warts and all, but it was just too many warts for me. I think I asked for Little Failure at my library because I heard an interview with Mr. Shteyngart on NPR. I had not read any of his fiction. I don't plan to now. Gary Shteyngart immigrated from Russia with his parents when he was a child. The transition was a real shock. He w I read most of the book, including skipping to the end so I think I got a good feel for it. I guess I should give Mr. Shteyngart credit for really writing about himself, warts and all, but it was just too many warts for me. I think I asked for Little Failure at my library because I heard an interview with Mr. Shteyngart on NPR. I had not read any of his fiction. I don't plan to now. Gary Shteyngart immigrated from Russia with his parents when he was a child. The transition was a real shock. He was sick a lot. His successes as a boy are not appreciated. He was bullied. He was the bully. Generally the story was a bummer with which I could not connect. Others from different backgrounds may enjoy it.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

    I should point out that while I'm an unabashed fan of Shteyngart's fiction, I'm also quite hesitant about author memoirs, or anyone's memoirs really, especially in the Facebook age where it seems like we're all confessional, like we're all memoirists. But hey, it was funny enough, although not as funny as his novels. Here's the thing. When we write about our own lives, the amount of misery and darkness (which are, of course, conduits for humor) that we can evince are totally dependent upon the a I should point out that while I'm an unabashed fan of Shteyngart's fiction, I'm also quite hesitant about author memoirs, or anyone's memoirs really, especially in the Facebook age where it seems like we're all confessional, like we're all memoirists. But hey, it was funny enough, although not as funny as his novels. Here's the thing. When we write about our own lives, the amount of misery and darkness (which are, of course, conduits for humor) that we can evince are totally dependent upon the actual amount of misery and darkness we've experienced, lest we be emotional dwarves, maudlin morons, or straight-up liars. When we write fiction, we can go all out. I would rather he'd gone all out.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Julia

    This is the best book I have read all year, without question. While the Family Shteyngart certainly lays claim to their own special type of crazy, coming from an immigrant Jewish family I found aspects of Shteyngart's memoir so familiar it was positively eerie. What is truly remarkable, however, is not his brutally honest, observant analysis of himself and his family, but the tenderness and forgiveness he manages to convey even in his most tragic passages.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Robert Warren

    In his 2002 debut novel The Russian Debutante's Handbook, Gary Shteyngart introduced hapless hero Vladimir, the author's Russian Jewish immigrant doppelganger, nicknamed "Little Failure" by his perpetually disappointed mother. Surely, the nickname is pure fiction. What real-life mother would affix such a moniker to a child, and why? After two more satirical novels, numerous New Yorker essays, thrice-weekly psychoanalysis, and literary celebrity, Shteyngart's new memoir Little Failure reveals tha In his 2002 debut novel The Russian Debutante's Handbook, Gary Shteyngart introduced hapless hero Vladimir, the author's Russian Jewish immigrant doppelganger, nicknamed "Little Failure" by his perpetually disappointed mother. Surely, the nickname is pure fiction. What real-life mother would affix such a moniker to a child, and why? After two more satirical novels, numerous New Yorker essays, thrice-weekly psychoanalysis, and literary celebrity, Shteyngart's new memoir Little Failure reveals that his mother not only dubbed him thus, but she also invented a Russian-English word to do so: Failurchka. His father called him Snotty—a reference to his debilitating, unforgivable asthma—and Weakling. Then there's the physical abuse, rendered when the troubled family trio lived in Leningrad and after emigration to Queens in 1979, when Gary (born Igor) was seven. Shteyngart casts these offenses as bits of experience that, over time, become crucial chapters in his development. Often, he presents painful situations with just enough distance to make them funny without losing bite. Little Failure is also a kind of adventure story: How will Gary survive this family dysfunction, the source of much of his rage and anxiety, and reconcile with his failed opera-singer-turned-engineer Papa, and pianist-turned-file clerk Mama? The narrative jumps back and forth in time, so we know early on that he and his parents are, surprisingly, not estranged. How? Little Failure plots that touching trajectory. Along the way, Shteyngart coaxes empathy and compassion not just from himself, but from his reader. This is handy, because come puberty, he is often an asshole. That's a lot of magnanimity to conjure, but with Shteyngart as your guide, you'll manage. He rewards faith with prose potent and smooth as high-grade vodka, often funny, but also incisive, and wrought with a contagious affection for flawed, passionate people. Shteyngart quotes Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz: "When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished." Yet, despite his parents' fears about his disclosures ("Tell us," his father asks when publication of Little Failure is imminent, "how long do we have to live?"), Shteyngart humanizes the couple. He investigates his parents' pasts, and these passages, delving into his relatives' intimate ties to Stalin-era atrocities (most died, horrifically) and subsequent Soviet oppression, add considerable gravitas to his compulsive hilarity, relieving his parents from caricature. Shteyngart also treats us to Lenin and His Magical Goose, a novella written when he was six, in which Lenin and a socialist goose conquer Finland. His doting grandmother commissioned it, paying him a block of Soviet cheese for each page, a lesson of cause and effect he never forgets. (Protectively, his parents allow him to worship Lenin, revealing nothing about their disillusionment with their government until the day they emigrate.) Shteyngart's storytelling mojo becomes his ticket to nerdish popularity at Hebrew school and Stuyvesant High in New York. He masters English quickly. He spends much of his time at Oberlin College in a pot-and-alcohol haze, where his out-of-control personality earns him the sobriquet "Scary Gary," and where he produces reams of writing and, at last, finds (doomed) love. Our worry for him and his put-upon friends extends into his post-college life in Manhattan, where a kindly benefactor eventually loses patience and insists Shteyngart get intensive psychotherapy, which saves his life and inaugurates his career. Eventually, Shteyngart and his parents return to Leningrad for a revelatory homecoming. All that has come before dovetails with striking grace, elevating Little Failure to an act of love—for his parents, his story, and Shteyngart himself.

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