Reviews for Little Failure : A Memoir

Booklist Reviews 2014 February #2
*Starred Review* Novelist Shteyngart (Super Sad True Love Story, 2010) looks back at his tug-of-war life in this caustic, funny, brash, and self-immolating memoir. Born in Leningrad, in 1972, the only child of a kindergarten piano teacher and a mechanical engineer, Shteyngart was a small, anxious, severely asthmatic boy stretched on the rack of his warring parents' needs and worries and subjected to downright medieval treatments for his ailment. While gasping for breath and paralyzed with fear, including a terror of the Soviets' notorious exploding televisions, Shteyngart--nicknamed "Little Failure"--became a "pathological reader." Encouraged to write by his indomitable grandmother, who paid him for his efforts in cheese, he composed his first novel at age five: Lenin and His Magical Goose. Veering between flaying candor and chagrined adoration in his vivid depictions of his family, Shteyngart is also diabolically droll in his accounts of social absurdities, including what he basically describes as the grain-for-Jews agreement reached between Jimmy Carter and the USSR that freed Soviet Jewry, including the battling Shteyngarts. He then experienced a second life-changing liberation when he received his first inhaler. Finally able to breath, the Little Failure figures out that writing is his only defense against being a "hated freak" in a Hebrew school in Queens. Shteyngart's penetrating attentiveness, outlandish precision, abrading and embracing humor, and ability to extrapolate larger truths about inheritance, immigration, assimilation, and creativity from his own epic floundering and yearning make for a memoir of exceptional dimension, provocation, and pleasure. Copyright 2014 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2014 January
From Russia, with love (& tears)

Near the end of his entrancing and unsparing memoir, Gary Shteyngart —author of three exuberant, award-winning novels—writes, “On so many occasions in my novels I have approached a certain truth only to turn away from it, only to point my finger and laugh at it and then scurry back to safety. In this book, I promised myself I would not point the finger. My laughter would be intermittent. There would be no safety.”

Shteyngart—being Shteyngart—cannot not be funny. In one example drawn at random from Little Failure, he introduces his Grandmother Polya, with whom he is parked after school every day while his parents work (and whose TV he hopes will provide him with new story ideas for entertaining his classmates, who would otherwise despise the slight, poorly dressed Russian immigrant boy): “Behind every great Russian child, there is a Russian grandmother who acts as chef de cuisine, bodyguard, personal shopper, and PR agent.” He begins another chapter: “The next year I get the present every boy wants. A circumcision.”

But the flip side of this sharp sense of humor—an inheritance from his traumatized Russian Jewish family, he says—is rage. A sweet, sickly, incredibly bright only child born in Leningrad in 1972, Shteyngart became a “kind of tuning fork for my parents’ fears, disappointments, and alienation.” Those fears and disappointments ripened when the family left Russia and came eventually to Queens, New York. Shteyngart’s vividly recounted immigrant’s tale tells a parallel story of family dysfunction and a growing self-hatred that, during his years at Oberlin College, manifested in out-of-control behavior that earned him the nickname Scary Gary and, later, led him to regrettable cruelties visited upon people who tried to help him.

Little Failure is also an account of Shteyngart’s growth as a writer. At important junctures in his life, his ability to write helped him overcome his social awkwardness to gain appreciative attention from his peers. “There is nothing as joyful as writing, even when the writing is twisted and full of . . . the self-hate that makes writing not only possible but necessary,” he says at one point. His need to succeed as a writer led Shteyngart at long last to enter psychotherapy, and the result, as the final chapters show, was transformative. Few writers have written about the soul-scorching experiences of their lives with such wit and ferocity as Shteyngart does in Little Failure. There is certainly no scurrying to safety here.

Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2013 December #1
An immigrant's memoir like few others, with as sharp an edge and as much stylistic audacity as the author's well-received novels. The Russian-American novelist writes that after completing this memoir, he reread his three novels (Super Sad True Love Story, 2010, etc.) and was "shocked by the overlaps between fiction and reality....On many occasions in my novels I have approached a certain truth only to turn away from it, only to point my finger and laugh at it and then scurry back to safety. In this book I promised myself I would not point the finger. My laughter would be intermittent. There would be no safety." That observation minimizes just how funny this memoir frequently is, but it suggests that the richest, most complex character the author has ever rendered on the page is the one once known to his family as "Little Igor" and later tagged with "Scary Gary" by his Oberlin College classmates, with whom he recalls an incident, likely among many, in which he was "the drunkest, the stonedest, and, naturally, the scariest." Fueled by "the rage and humor that are our chief inheritance," Shteyngart traces his family history from the atrocities suffered in Stalinist Russia, through his difficulties assimilating as the "Red Nerd" of schoolboy America, through the asthma and panic attacks, alcoholism and psychoanalysis that preceded his literary breakthrough. He writes of the patronage of Korean-American novelist Chang-Rae Lee, who recruited him for a new creative writing program at Hunter College, helped him get a book deal for a novel he'd despaired over ever publishing and had "severely shaken my perception of what fiction about immigrants can get away with." Ever since, he's been getting away with as much as he dares. Though fans of the author's fiction will find illumination, a memoir this compelling and entertaining--one that frequently collapses the distinction between comedy and tragedy--should expand his readership beyond those who have loved his novels. Copyright Kirkus 2013 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2013 August #1

Author of celebrated novels like Super Sad True Love Story, Shteyngart actually produced his first literary work, Lenin and His Magical Goose, at age five. In this funny memoir, he recalls his early years in the crumbling Soviet Union, then at age seven coming to America--land of the enemy--following a deal between presidents Carter and Brezhnev guaranteeing Soviet Jews safe passage in exchange for U.S. grain. The hapless Shteyngart didn't fit in and surely wasn't going to be a lawyer, as his parents wanted; hence his mother's more or less affectionate nickname for him, Failurchka--that is, Little Failure. She was wrong.

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Library Journal Reviews 2013 December #1

Instead of the incisive, satirical novel that readers might expect from Shteyngart (Super Sad True Love Story), this refreshing memoir makes it clear that for a writer in his 40s, he has produced enough material to fill volumes. Shteyngart unleashes a storm of lacerating humor upon himself and everything (and everyone) that made him who he is. As an immigrant, a misfit, and a lonely kid yearning to fit in, the author brings to life a quintessentially American story. This fascinating look into the making of a prominent literary voice is difficult to put down. VERDICT Poignant, vitriolic, wistful, always moving and painfully honest, this memoir is a substantial contribution. Shteyngart is well known for writing book blurbs for other authors; expect to see some heavy hitters getting behind this memoir, a self-examination that is entertaining and devastating in equal measure. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 7/22/13.]--Audrey Snowden, Orrington P.L., ME

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2013 October #4

One afternoon in 1996, a book titled St. Petersburg: Architecture of the Tsars becomes Shytengart's madeleine, carrying him back in time and memory to his childhood in Moscow and launching him on a career of writing about the past in his novels (Absurdistan). In his typical laugh-aloud approach, the acclaimed novelist carries us with him on his journey, from his birth in Leningrad and his decision to become a writer at age five to his immigration to America and his family's settling in New York City in 1979. Adolescent misadventure, his days at Oberlin College, his psychoanalysis, and his struggles after college to wend his way through the workaday world of Wall Street toward becoming a writer round out the trip. Shytengart spends much of his pre-adolescence glued to the television set, watching shows like Gilligan's Island, which causes him to ask himself questions about American culture: "Is it really possible that a country as powerful as the United States would not be able to locate two of its best citizens lost at sea, to wit the millionaire and his wife?" Shytengart's self-deprecating humor contains the sharp-edged twist of the knife of melancholy in this take of a young man "desperately trying to have a history, a past." (Jan.)

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